With only three weeks remaining in the NFL season, teams who are on the outside of the playoff picture must win in order to stay alive. Last week, a shocking defeat for the 49ers has all but eliminated the team from playoff contention in the NFC. Meanwhile, in the AFC, key wins for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens have them tied on record with the San Diego Chargers, while the Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans, and Kansas Chiefs all sit one game behind at 7-6.
The premier game of the week sees the Cincinnati Bengals looking to maintain their slim lead in the AFC North as they travel to Cleveland to take on a desperate Browns team which has handed over the reins to rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel.
Last week, Cincinnati suffered a costly loss against division rival Pittsburgh as quarterback Andy Dalton struggled to create offense in the second half. Dalton has been one of the most inconsistent quarterbacks in the league this year and his play from week to week has been difficult to predict. The quarterback has registered two top-40 games by QBR (Total Quarterback Rating) this season at quarterback, including the 12th best, while also putting in two of the 20 worst games, including the 8th worst.
Dalton has been best when his star wide receiver AJ Green is playing at 100 percent. Over their last four, Dalton has thrown at Green 47 times and Green has hauled in 33 for 529 yards and 3 TDs. Green will have to be heavily involved in the game plan again this week against Cleveland.
Cincinnati’s problem of late has been controlling the opposition’s run game. The team gives up 130.3 yards on the ground, good for 26th in the league. Putting weights on how and when the rush yards were accumulated actually makes the team look even worse, and Football Outsiders measures the Bengals as the 30th ranked rush defense by DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Above Replacement).
For Johnny Football to have success on Sunday, the Browns will need to exploit the Bengals awful run defense to keep the offense from becoming too one-dimensional. The Browns as a team have one of the worst rush attacks in the league, ranked 15th in yards and 28th in DVOA, so something will have to give between these two below-average units.
As for Manziel, Sunday will be his first career start in a game the Browns cannot lose. Manziel made an appearance two weeks ago and drove down the field to score a touchdown, passing for 63 yards and rushing for 13 on the drive. Expect Cleveland’s offense to feature new elements that put Manziel in a position to succeed. Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan told AP reporters that it is difficult to predict what Manziel will do on any given play.
"Everything out here is pretty much scripted and stuff," Shanahan said following Thursday's practice. "I'm waiting. I'm sure it's going to happen pretty fast. We call a pass play, and he's going to do six spins reversing back and forth outside the pocket. I'm going to hold my breath be yelling half the time, and then probably be running and jumping on top of him excited at the end of it.”
Sunday’s game plan should include a variety of read options and pocking-moving pass plays that utilize the quarterback’s unique skill set. Above all, with Johnny Football, expect the unexpected.
The key match-up in this game will be AJ Green lined up against Browns corner-back Joe Haden. Haden has emerged as a star, but has had a few troublesome games this season against elite wide receivers, including last week were he gave up 10 receptions and 150 yards to TY Hilton.
In their history, Green and Haden have played to a draw. Excluding plays in which Green was covered by other corner-backs, Haden suffocated Green in their last match-up in 2013, holding him to one catch for three yards. However in the games prior, Green had caught for 239 yards and 1 TD when lined up against Haden. Haden’s ability to stop the big play will be crucial for Cleveland.
Expect Cleveland’s sub par rush offense to get the better of Cincinnati’s rush defense, allowing Manziel to have a solid game. However, in the end, the Bengals could get a solid performance from Dalton and be too much for the Browns to handle, narrowly pulling out a victory in a close NFC North grudge match.