1. Before we get to the matchups and the X’s and O’s of the deal, let’s start with this. With all the drama surrounding the Browns and their current 11-game losing streak, are they capable of winning a game right now?
Pat McManamon: The only thing that might prevent them is lack of depth, because the injury situation on the defensive side is significant. That being said, the only thing the Browns have more of than losses is excuses. But the Browns are capable of winning. Because any team is capable. A cliche starts with “any given Sunday” for good reason. Cincinnati could play poorly, the Browns could play well. But it could happen — mainly because any NFL team that puts 11 guys on the field has a chance.
Zac Jackson: It’s a circus in Berea, and it’s a factor. Now, there’s no sign that the players have quit or have any open gripes with any particular aspect, but it’s clear that an ownership change is coming, the coach is under fire, the injury list is long and, well, losing 11 in a row in the NFL never happens by accident. The Browns have played well enough in stretches to win, and Trent Richardson seems due for the type of game that sees him kind of put everybody on his back and just will the Browns to victory. Maybe that’s this week. Once the game starts, the Browns aren’t a distracted team. Until they win one, though, it’s fair to wonder if they’re capable of blocking everything else out and delivering a solid performance.
2. Bad pun alert. His numbers have been good the last few weeks, but is Brandon Weeden getting a passing grade?
McManamon: Absolutely, even with his mistakes. Anyone who can’t see that Weeden is an upgrade over many recent quarterbacks isn’t watching. He stands in the pocket better than expected and has the arm strength needed to win. He’s made mistakes, but he’s a rookie, and rookies make mistakes. The negative about him remains his age, because by the time things “click” he might be 31, but Weeden and his 1,288 yards have shown positive signs for the future.
Jackson: Weeden is miles from great, but he belongs. Sometimes numbers lie, and the one that never does is the one in the win column, but he’s clearly making progress and making at least some NFL throws in every game. He made a couple throws last week — the long TD to Josh Gordon early, in particular — on plays that wouldn’t have been in the playbook last year. Weeden still has to cut down on the interceptions, and like a bunch of guys on the team he has a lot of proving still to do. But it’s not a stretch to think that Weeden has a chance to make more strides and earn the right to lead this team going forward.
3. Simple question. Are the Bengals contenders or pretenders?
McManamon: Contenders, provided they take care of games like this one, something they didn’t do last Sunday against Miami. If the Bengals are going to be a good team, they can’t stumble against bad ones. So they have to beat the Browns. Cincinnati’s running game remains a question mark, and losing Bernard Scott doesn’t help. But the Bengals have an elite receiver in A.J. Green, an elite defensive tackle in Geno Atkins and a very good quarterback in Andy Dalton. Those are winning players. Now the Bengals need to go win.
Jackson: Pretenders, and currently it’s not close to the other answer. The Bengals have talent, have pieces and have room to grow, but after this week the schedule gets nasty — and nothing about last week’s clunker indicates they’re peaking right now. There are too many injuries in the secondary, the linebacking corps clearly misses Thomas Howard, the offensive line and the running game aren’t clicking, and though there’s reason to think this Bengals team is way ahead of where it was a year ago, there are just as many reasons to think the climb to the playoffs is going to be awfully steep.
4. The Steelers look old and slow. The Ravens are less than perfect but 4-1. Where does the division race go from here?
McManamon: The Steelers are old and slow — and they’re beat up. Pittsburgh has to deal with not having Lamar Woodley and Troy Polamalu. Thursday night, Maurkice Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert, Ramon Foster, Rashard Mendenhal, Isaac Redman and Ryan Clark all were hurt. It’s not untypical of a Thursday game, a real farce foisted by the league given its “emphasis” on player safety. At this point, the Steelers might not be able to overcome age and injury, which makes the Ravens a prohibitive favorite to win the division and the Bengals the only real option to be a wild card team.
Jackson: The only reason the Steelers aren’t done is because they’re still the Steelers, and they often find a way. That way is looking longer and more complicated than ever, though, as the Steelers are long in the tooth, the offensive line is still a mess and Ike Taylor is getting picked on like he’s Buster Skrine. The Ravens have defensive questions and are coming off two straight flat offensive performances, but they’re the class of the AFC North field right now. With Dallas and Houston on tap before a bye week, the Ravens need to summon their A-game if they want to build on their current division lead.
5. Prediction time. Is Sunday going to be the day Browns fans have been waiting for? Or do the Bengals get things back on track?
McManamon: Browns fans will have to keep waiting. It’s really amazing. The Browns have lost 11 in a row and haven’t won a division game in two years. The Bengals own them. Yet folks in Cleveland keep predicting a Browns win. Which makes me wonder: Based on what? Other than hope? The Browns hopes rest on Joe Haden stopping A.J. Green. Green is off to a fabulous start. Haden is coming off a suspension. Edge: Green. Game, Bengals.
Jackson: This is a game the Browns can win. Richardson can get rolling (if the coaching staff allows him to) and the return of Joe Haden provides a much-needed boost. The Bengals simply didn’t execute last week, turning early turnovers into disappointing field goals and waiting too long to figure things out, leading to that clock-management disaster. Both teams need this game badly, and there’s a lot that points to the Browns winning. But the Bengals are just a little better, and they should win a close one in the fourth quarter.