Bengals at Browns: Five things to watch

Posted at 4:04 AM, Dec 06, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-06 04:04:14-05

CLEVELAND (AP) — They share some history, uniform colors and a strong disdain for the other. But these days, Ohio's two NFL franchises are complete opposites — in the state and in the standings.

The Bengals and Browns are worlds apart.

Leading the AFC North by three games, Cincinnati (9-2) enters Sunday's game against last-place Cleveland (2-9) with an outside chance of locking up its fifth straight playoff appearance. Here's how that can happen:

1) WIN + IND loss or tie + HOU loss or tie + NYJ loss as long as BOTH IND and HOU don’t tie
2) WIN + IND loss or tie + HOU loss or tie + KC loss + DEN win or tie as long as BOTH IND and HOU don’t tie

Five things to watch in the 85th installment of the "Battle of Ohio" (1 p.m. ET, FOX Sports):
DO THE BROWNS HAVE ANY LIFE LEFT? If there's anything that can light a fire in Cleveland, it's playing Cincinnati. But you have to wonder if Monday's night last-second loss, a six-game losing streak,  their seemingly hopeless situation at quarterback and other key injuries have drained all the fight out of them.

The 33-27 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, who blocked a field goal and returned it 64 yards for a touchdown on the game's final play, was the kind of stunning defeat that only seems to happen to the Browns.

"I saw the end of that game," Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. "That was an interesting way to go down. But at the end of the day, we're not going to let their troubles be our troubles. We're going to go out and play our football game and stay on track for what we want to do."

The Browns are still without star cornerback Joe Haden - A.J. Green's worst nightmare - and receiver Andrew Hawkins as they work through concussion protocol.

The Bengals list tight end Tyler Eifert as doubtful (neck).

MANZIEL ON THE BENCH:  With Austin Davis taking over at QB for Josh McCown, lost for the season with a broken collarbone, Davis becomes the Browns' 24th starting quarterback since 1999. Coach Mike Pettine picked Davis over Johnny Manziel, who started Cleveland's 31-10 loss to Cincinnati last month but lost his job after breaking a promise he wouldn't go out partying during the team's bye week.

Davis isn't looking at this week's game as an audition. He's only guaranteed one start for now, and intends to make the most of it.

"I feel like I'm trying to beat the Cincinnati Bengals," he said. "That's kind of how I've got to approach it, and everything else just kind of happens. One week at a time."

PETTINE'S PLACE: With a 2-14 record in his past 16 games, Pettine is on shaky ground with five games left. He knows it. His players know it, everyone in Cleveland knows it.

Browns Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas hopes owner Jimmy Haslam gives Pettine a third year.

"If you want to turn the Cleveland Browns into a consistent winner, you've got to be able to stick with a coach after a rough year," he said. "The NFL is too competitive to think you're going to turn around a franchise that has lost since they've come back in a year or two. It's just not realistic."

STINGY D: The Bengals' defense has given up the fewest points in the league at 193. Cincinnati has held four of the past five opponents to 10 points or fewer.

Tackle Geno Atkins leads NFL interior linemen with eight sacks, Dunlap has 8½. Safety Reggie Nelson leads the league with six interceptions. It's been a winning combination.

"Having Geno Atkins in the middle makes it easier for you as an edge rusher," Dunlap said. "Especially when you've got a safety behind you leading the league in picks — they don't want to throw it up there."

NO LEAPING: Running back Jeremy Hill tried to jump into the Dawg Pound after scoring a touchdown during Cincinnati's 30-0 win in Manziel's debut last season, but fans shoved him out. He won't try to go back. Hill's having a subpar second season - 490 yards - and has toned down his TD celebrations.

"I've been trying to cut back on all that extra stuff, man," said Hill, who ran for a season-high 86 yards last week. "That stuff's all fun and dandy, but I'm synced in on what we need to accomplish."