Battle of Ohio regaining importance
The "Battle of Ohio" is a pretty solid moniker for a rivalry game. Certainly bragging rights over an entire state is something to get excited about, right?
"It's the reason why I don't even like the name of Cleveland, because all through growing up with the Bengals I feel like Cleveland has a negative meaning anywhere around here," said Bengals linebacker J.K. Schaffer, a Cincinnati native. "It was natural."
Yet the last time the Bengals and Browns both finished a season with winning records was 1988, two years before Schaffer was born. The Boomer and Bernie era. Cincinnati won the AFC Central with a 12-4 record and eventually went on to win its second conference championship. The Browns finished 10-6 but lost to the Houston Oilers 24-23 at Municipal Stadium in the AFC wild card game.
The Browns won the division the next season, going 9-6-1, while the Bengals finished last at 8-8. The closest the pair has come since to being above .500 in the same season was in 2007 when the Browns went 10-6 and the Bengals were 7-9, including a 19-14 win in Week 16 that essentially knocked Cleveland out of the playoffs.
Games between the Browns and Bengals haven't exactly held a lot of tangible meaning for both teams in quite some time. Generally, one team or the other – or both – has been playing for nothing but pride. There's been a lot of losing football played in this state over
the past two-plus decades. Todd Jones of the Columbus Dispatch has kept track of one of more absurd stats in sports over the years: Since the Browns were reincarnated in 1999, the two teams have won on the same day just 16 times.
The Browns may still be a game under .500 at 4-5 but with the Bengals falling to 6-4 after two straight losses in overtime at Miami and Baltimore there's no doubt this game constitutes a big game.
"We see the position we're in right now, and this game is very meaningful, to say the least, for both teams," said Bengals linebacker Vinny Rey.
Rich Eisen of the NFL Network tweeted earlier this week that the last time Ohio's NFL teams faced each other when they were in first and second place in the division was in Week 9 of the 1995 season.
The teams were both 3-4 and in a three-way tie for first place in the AFC Central with Pittsburgh on Oct. 29, 1995. Bill Belichick was coaching Cleveland. He had just replaced Vinny Testaverde at quarterback with Eric Zeier and Art Modell had yet to announce the move to Baltimore. Dave Shula's Bengals were led by Jeff Blake. David Klingler, subbing in for Blake after Blake was hurt in the fourth quarter, rallied the Bengals from 10 points down in the final 2:51 of regulation only to see the Browns win 29-26 in overtime.
That was a long time ago.
The season isn't on the line for either team regardless of Sunday's outcome but the winner will be in much better shape going forward.
"You've got to treat them like anyone else but it's importance especially because it's a division game," said Bengals punter Kevin Huber, a Cincinnati native. "You've got to come out and play them with your best shot. They've been playing well. We're going to get their best shot, just like last week when we got the Ravens' best shot."
The Bengals are 1-2 in the division, including a 17-6 loss at Cleveland in Week 4. Cleveland is 2-1 and a win Sunday would give them their first season sweep of the Bengals since 2002 as well as an important possible tie-breaker for down the road.
From 1980-90, the Browns and Bengals combined for 11 playoff appearances, including winning eight division championships, five AFC conference title games and two Super Bowl appearances. In the 22 seasons since, there has been a combined six playoff appearances with just two division titles and no postseason wins.
Sunday will be the 81st meeting between the Browns and Bengals. It is good that the "Battle of Ohio" once again means something.