Five things to watch: Browns at Bengals

CINCINNATI – Five things, players and areas to watch in Thursday night’s really big game between the Cleveland Browns (5-3) and Cincinnati Bengals (5-2-1)…

1. First place in the AFC North is temporarily at stake, as is third place, and because the division is so competitive and this is just the first game of the season’s second half for both teams, it’s not about anything mathematical or hypothetical. It’s about winning, a psychological edge and a message to the other team — and teams, really. The Browns have been dying to play big games in November and play on this stage. The Bengals won’t really accomplish any of their goals until they win in January, but this is a playoff-like game for many reasons. The short week is equally challenging for both, and though the Bengals haven’t lost at home in two seasons the Browns will bring fans and confidence. The Browns really believe they belong — in this game and in the division race — and here’s their chance to find out. It should be fun.

2. The Browns suddenly can’t run the ball and still can’t stop the run. That’s not a good combination. One of the key matchups tonight is the Browns offensive line against a Bengals front that’s without Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict and maybe a few other key pieces. Too much push right in the middle has derailed the Browns the last few weeks, and even as Geno Atkins still works his way back to full speed a year off a torn ACL, he can be a force. The Browns want Brian Hoyer to throw the ball quickly when he wants to, not because he has to, and establishing some sort of a running game — the Browns have 158 rushing yards total over the last three weeks — will be key to keeping the Bengals defense off balance.

3. Maybe this is where the Browns have played the last 12 quarters turns into a humbling experience against quality competition. Andrew Hawkins will almost certainly play against his old team, but Hoyer needs him at full speed. The run set up the pass early in the season, and lately it’s only set up Hoyer in must-pass situations. The Browns are really going to have to hold their breath with either Buster Skrine or Justin Gilbert against Mohamed Sanu in the passing game. The Browns just haven’t been very good on the road at all and don’t want to dig themselves an early hole to make a tough task even tougher.

4. Or, maybe this is where the Browns put four quarters together and stamp themselves as a team to really watch going forward. The Bengals are banged up and those who were on the Browns roster last year know the gap isn’t all that wide. Hoyer has bounced back from every down spell with big drives and clutch throws. The defense has played so much better over the last month than it did the first month it’s like it’s not even the same group. And here’s the biggest challenge yet, to slow the run and force Dalton to win the game and keep A.J. Green and Sanu from rolling. The Browns want a 20-17 (or even 16-13) type game in which they win the turnover battle and Hoyer has a chance to win it late. They could get it, but they’ll have to be good from the very beginning.

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5. The Bengals are banged up and have had trouble putting teams away. Even with top runner Gio Bernard out they have a bruising back in rookie Jeremy Hill and won’t mind if wind and an annoying rain become a factor. The Browns know they can’t afford mental errors, shoddy special teams play or penalties, especially in the passing game. If the Bengals get the run game going that will open chances for Dalton to take shots down the field. Even if Green isn’t 100 percent, he’s still a load — and Sanu is playing almost as well as any receiver anywhere. Maybe Hawkins can deliver a big game. Maybe Terrance West can deliver a big game. The Browns defense knows it has to deliver one. A win here sets up even bigger ones down the road, but this is the biggest game the Browns have played in a long, long time. Will folks be talking playoffs by midnight or does the clock strike midnight on an overachieving team?