Time for meaningful football
In the National Football League, games in September and October are merely won and lost.
In November and December, though, division championships and playoff spots are won and lost.
It’s comforting to look at the league standings today and see the Browns not resting in last place in the AFC North. But now with the second half underway, that was then; this is now.
Forget the 5-3 record. All that got the Browns for that was third place in the division. At least they are not already planning for next season.
The season gets tougher now in more ways than one. Every game from here on out will have post-season implications. Each game takes on an even greater importance than the previous one.
And it all starts for the Browns Thursday night against the Bengals in Cincinnati, where the Battle of Ohio resumes in front of a national television audience.
It is the point in the season where every play, every down, every series means something. The outcome of one seemingly insignificant play could be the difference between a victory and a loss.
If the previous six seasons are an indication of how the Browns finish this season, time to prepare for next season. They have won just 12 of 48 second-half games since 2008.
That includes records of 1-7, 4-4, 2-6, 1-7, 3-5 and 1-7. The 4-4 in 2009 was the result of a four-game winning streak at the end of the season, overcoming a 1-11 start. It saved Eric Mangini’s job for a year.
Games take on much greater importance in the final two months. That is when the good teams separate themselves from the average teams and the average teams separate themselves from the bottom feeders.
The Bengals, for example, are 13-3 in November and December the last two seasons, qualifying for the playoffs both seasons. Their 7-1 second half in 2012 enabled them to finish second in the division after a 3-5 start. By matching their 6-2 start last season, they won the division title.
Games are played at a different speed and intensity as the final weeks of the regular season peel away. They become much more meaningful and, hopefully, bring out the best in players.
The current Browns have no idea how to play in such an atmosphere. A vast majority of the players on the roster have never been placed in pressure situations this late in the season. That’s the X factor as they enter unfamiliar territory.
The Bengals, on the other hand, are battle-tested with regard to not just playing meaningful games, but winning them. That edge in experience cannot be underestimated.
Granted, they have been a one-and-out team in the playoffs the last three seasons, but at least they got there. That is the goal to which the Browns aspire, their inexperience notwithstanding.
Browns coach Mike Pettine wants to find out what his team is made of when it comes to being competitive in meaningful games. There is no better stage on which to find that out than on national TV with ownership of first place in the division a possibility. Will they crumble or rise to the occasion?
Considering the way the Browns played the last three games against the three worst teams in the NFL, taking on one of the league’s best teams might help furnish the answer to Pettine’s question.
For whatever reason, the Browns played much better in the first five games against Pittsburgh (twice), New Orleans, Baltimore and Tennessee, although the latter has fallen into the also-ran category. Still, that Cleveland team in no way resembled the one we’ve witnessed the last few weeks.
If it takes a stronger opponent to elicit a better performance from the Browns, Thursday night’s game fits that description perfectly. Now seems like the best time to step up and perform.
Even though they reside in first place, the Bengals have been a Jekyll-Hyde team belying their 5-2-1 record. They have knocked off the Baltimore Ravens twice, but surrendered 43 points in a loss to New England, 37 more in a tie with Carolina and 27 in a shutout loss to Indianapolis. They are only plus-7 in point differential.
But it’s the performance of the Cincinnati defense, a staple under coordinator Mike Zimmer for several seasons, that puzzles their fans this season. It gives up 395 net yards a game. Zimmer’s departure to become head coach in Minnesota might have something to do with the dropoff.
This might be the perfect time for the Browns to regain their offensive prowess if that’s possible. The Bengals are hurting somewhat on the defensive side of the ball.
Outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who seems to play his some of his best games against the Browns, underwent knee surgery recently and will not play. Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga (hamstring) is questionable. So is Leon Hall, their best defender in the secondary, who has a concussion.
It’s on defense where the Browns have to ramp to up their game now that wide receiver A. J. Green is healthy after missing three games with a toe injury and ready to resume his battle with Joe Haden. In six games against the Browns, Green has caught 27 passes for 402 yards and four touchdowns.
When versatile running back Giovani Bernard (hip) missed the victory last week over Jacksonville, it was thought the Cincinnati ground game would suffer. Rookie Jeremy Hill provided the proper medicine with a 154-yard, two-touchdown afternoon and figures to get the call again against the Browns.
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, having an up-and-down season with just eight touchdown passes and six interceptions, loves playing against the Browns, especially at home, where he is 3-0 against them, averaging 33 points a game.
Since the Bengals are considered by many to be among the high quality teams in the NFL, this very well could be the barometer game Pettine seeks. It could also be labeled a character game, especially after the troika of below-average performances.
Because both defenses have turned in below-par showings too often this season, this one figures to be a high-scoring affair, which is not unusual on Thursday Night Football. The first eight games have produced 420 points (52.5 a game). The home team has won five of those games by an average margin of 22 points.
With that in mind, the Browns and Bengals will not disappoint and provide another TNF shootout. The Cleveland offense comes alive once again with Brian Hoyer and Isaiah Crowell in starring roles; the Bengals keep up with their rivals with Dalton, Green and Hill starring; and the defenses are mere spectators. Make it:
Bengals 38, Browns 24