By Andrew Kahn

First place is on the line in the air tight AFC North as the Browns visit the Bengals on Thursday night. Considering the Browns are involved, that’s hard to believe—remember, Cleveland hasn’t posted more than five wins since 2007. But under first-year head coach Mike Pettine, the Browns are 5-3. They will try to snap a 17-game road losing streak within the division. That’s right, the last time Cleveland won a divisional road game was 2008. The Bengals (5-2-1) have not lost a regular season home game since Week 14 in 2012. It’s a battle for Ohio, and for the first time in recent memory, it’s meaningful.

When Cleveland has the ball:

Quarterback Brian Hoyer and, more importantly, the Browns, have played well enough to quiet the Johnny Manziel supporters. But Hoyer has not been great: His passer rating ranks 19th among qualifying players. Hoyer threw two interceptions on Sunday and was awful in a Week 7 loss to Jacksonville. But he’s had his effective moments, more than you could have expected from the rookie Manziel, and again, Cleveland is winning. How much of the offense’s success is based on a weak schedule? Outside of its three divisional games, the Browns have faced Tampa Bay (1-7), Oakland (0-8), Jacksonville (1-8), and Tennessee (2-6). The home wins against New Orleans and Pittsburgh stand as the only impressive victories so far.

In other words, Thursday is a huge measuring stick game for Cleveland. Rookie running back Terrance West has been decent and certainly better than Ben Tate of late. West appears to have emerged from the heap of backs and could see 15-plus carries against Cincinnati’s poor run defense. Many skeptical eyes will be on the Browns, in particular the offense, and even more specifically Hoyer, who will probably need to complete a high percentage (65 percent or so) of his passes in order for the Browns to win. He’s had success with the deep ball but needs to find consistency on the shorter routes.

When Cincinnati has the ball:

Cleveland’s run defense is just as bad as the Bengals’—in fact, the teams are tied for 30th in the league, yielding 139.6 rush yards per game. Like Cleveland, the Bengals have turned to a rookie back (Giovani Bernard is hurt), and Jeremy Hill has delivered. He showed his shiftiness and speed on a 60-yard touchdown run on Sunday, high-stepping to make the final would-be tackler miss.

Star wideout A.J. Green returned last week after missing three games with a toe injury, and caught a touchdown. Like most receivers, he’s struggled against Cleveland corner Joe Haden, but Andy Dalton can always turn to Mohamed Sanu, who ranks 14th in the NFL in receiving yards. Dalton has had some turnover troubles lately; on Sunday, he short-armed a pass off a lineman’s back that was intercepted. He needs to be decisive and trust his receivers. Pocket protection will be key, especially with tackle Andre Smith questionable because of a sprained ankle.

Prediction: Cincinnati 31, Cleveland 23

Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local who also writes for Newsday and The Wall Street Journal. He writes about the NFL and other sports at AndrewJKahn.com. Email him at andrewjkahn@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn.

You May Also Be Interested In These Stories

[display-posts category=”sports” wrapper=”ul” posts_per_page=”4″]