Sunday’s suddenly big Browns-Bengals game already has plenty of labels: Battle of Ohio, AFC North Showdown, Statement Sunday.
How about the Change of Circumstances Bowl?
Just three weeks ago, this set up like a revenge game for the Bengals on their way to a coronation. The Browns, under construction for the better part of 14 years, are on their third quarterback this season and tossed Plan A and Plan B in the dumpster months ago.
And here they are, 4-5 and confident, 4-1 in games started by someone besides Brandon Weeden, fresh off a win over the Ravens, then a bye week, and very much in contention for an actual playoff spot. The Bengals have lost two straight, slipping to 6-4 and watching an opportunity to lap the AFC North field slip away.
The Browns have won a whole bunch of nothing yet and the Bengals still control both their own destiny and the ability to disprove reports of their demise, but momentum matters in this league.
The Browns want to prove what they’ve been saying, that they’re up for this challenge and the others true contention and relevance would bring. The Bengals are still trying to prove that they’re different, better all around and better prepared to handle success and better on a consistent basis. In each of their last two games they’ve falled behind early and rallied to force overtime before losing.
In their first meeting with the Browns, there was no spark and no rally. It was arguably the Browns most complete game of the season. It was one of Andy Dalton’s worst games.
The Browns are still a team in transition. When their receivers catch passes and the front seven is on its game, that transition seems headed in the right direction. Rob Chudzinski has been coaching aggressively and coaching like the Browns expect to win, and with a team more mature than previous versions, that plays well. The Browns have won just once since Oct. 3 but are carrying themselves with confidence.
Starting with quarterback Jason Campbell, Sunday’s is the biggest NFL game much of the Browns roster has ever played. Campbell is probably about out of NFL chances. And even if the whole program really is moving in the right direction and Plans C-G really are coming together, the Browns veterans know these chances are earned, not granted, and far from guaranteed in the future.
It’s certainly about now for the Bengals, who might still have the division’s most talented roster even after losing Geno Atkins and Leon Hall for the season and have a home game with a chance to extend the division lead and right the ship before heading into a bye week that must feel a month overdue. It’s not the most perfect team or the one that’s best in a certain area that ends up winning the division and then the bigger games that follow; it’s the one that’s playing best when it counts most.
Both teams could really use this game. It would be a huge stepping stone for the Browns. It seems like a must for the Bengals, too, but it’s not a matter of survival. The Bengals still can win the division with a loss here if they get healthy and use the upcoming bye week to tighten things up. The field is so mediocre that a loss here doesn’t knock the Browns out of wildcard contention. Either way, the Browns play in the Big Picture Bowl and a chance to bury the Steelers next week, and the Bengals come back fresher in December having used that month last year to make the playoffs again and set a tone going forward.
No one really expected the Browns to be playing for the postseason this season, even if it still is too early to really say they’re playing for the playoffs. Circumstances change, though, and things change every week in the NFL. Every game matters. Every chance matters.
The Browns and Bengals are different teams with different goals. Come Sunday at about 4:30, they’ll again be headed in different directions.