NFL Week 2: Browns vs Bengals Game Preview

Cincinnati Bengals against the Cleveland Browns at Paul Brown Stadium on December 29, 2019

In the battle for Ohioans’ hearts and minds, the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals have a long history of animosity. While the rivalry has been at its best in years past—when both teams had Super Bowl aspirations, such as in the late 80s and early 90s—there’s still plenty of spirit in this AFC North tilt. For starters, whichever team loses Thursday night will fall into an 0-2 hole. While the expanded playoff field changes those NFL odds slightly, only 12% of 0-2 teams have made the playoffs in the past 12 seasons. As a result, the NFL betting implications of this divisional match are significant, both in terms of the division and playoff race, but also the likelihood that people in the Browns’ front office keep their job. With NFL betting lines hovering around Browns -6 (despite the Bengals coming off a league-worst 2-14 season in 2019), it’s clear that most online sports betting isn’t very confident in the Browns right now. Let’s look at why that might be.

Key matchups to watch

Baker Mayfield #6 of the Cleveland Browns during a game against the Baltimore Ravens on September 13, 2020

Several key matchups stand out. As always, the NFL is a quarterback-driven league, and that’s especially evident in the AFC North where the Ravens (and MVP Lamar Jackson) and Steelers (with a healthy Ben Rothlisberger) stand head-and-shoulders above the Browns and Bengals. Third-year quarterback, Baker Mayfield needs to prove that last season’s setbacks (which saw him move from a dark-horse MVP candidate in NFL betting picks last season to an afterthought this year) were a fluke and that he’s ready to bounce back. Rookie quarterback Joe Burrow, however, has time to work with, as no one really expects him to be a world-beater in just his first season.

The matchups on the sideline, between first-year Browns coach Kevin Stefanski and second-year Bengals coach Zac Taylor, is ripe with intrigue as well. Stefanski was hired to bring the Browns’ offense alive, but they badly underperformed in Week 1, scoring only six points against the Ravens. Taylor, too, was hired as an offensive mastermind in the Sean McVay mold; despite this, the Bengals were 30th in the league in points per game last season, at 17.4 points per game, and they scored only 13 points in Week 1 against a slightly better than average Chargers defense (8th in NFL Outsiders’ 2020 defensive DVOA projections). As a result, when it comes to NFL betting lines, the current total (between 43-45, depending on the sportsbook casino) may feel high to those currently underwhelmed by these two offenses.

Other key matchups include the Browns defensive front (and especially Myles Garrett) against the weak Bengals offensive line, which struggled against the Chargers, giving up a sack and three QB hits to the Chargers’ Joey Bosa in Week 1. There is also the Browns’ running backs against the Bengals’ soft run defense (28th in DVOA last season).

Cleveland Browns

Key questions to watch for the Browns as they look to avoid falling into an 0-2 hole for the first time since their 2016 and 2017 seasons (in which they won a single game in two seasons) include:

  • Whether they’re able to establish their offense, which underwhelmed last week in the blowout loss to the Ravens;
  • Whether they’re able to unlock their vaunted front four (which only got to Lamar Jackson twice) against a Bengals line that was 27th in pass block win rate last season;
  • Whether Baker Mayfield can get Odell Beckham Jr. more involved this week (despite having 28% of available targets last week, he was limited to three catches).

The answers to those questions will go a long way in determining whether or not the Browns can get their first win of the young season. For those looking at NFL betting odds, Beckham’s 10 targets last week were tied for 8th in the league; given how poor the Bengals pass defense is (29th last season in DVOA), a better performance seems likely.

Similarly, the Browns added two new starting tackles in Jack Conklin and 10th overall pick Jedrick Wills, Jr, hoping better line play would help revive Mayfield and the talent-laden offense, but with no preseason this year, it makes sense that it might take a week or two for everyone to find their rhythm. The Bengals’ weak defense may prove just the panacea the Browns need in NFL Week 2.

Cincinnati Bengals

Joe Burrow #9 of the Cincinnati Bengals during a game with the Los Angeles Chargers, September 13, 2020

Key questions to watch for the Bengals as they look to continue developing their young talent include:

  • Whether or not rookie quarterback Joe Burrow can be more consistent in his decision-making;
  • Whether or not their offensive line can hold up to the Browns’ front four;
  • Whether or not they can establish their run game.

Rookie quarterbacks frequently struggle with their decision-making, and Burrow’s debut was no different; while he showed plenty of agility in scoring on a 23-yard quarterback keeper (and tallying 46 rushing yards total), he also made several head-scratching decisions. The worst of those decisions was managing to throw an interception on a shovel pass when Melvin Ingram stepped in front of a lackadaisical flick. Given that the Bengals were in field goal range and had a first down with only 5 minutes remaining, this may well have been the decision that cost them the game. (Given that the Browns struggled with agile quarterbacks last season, Burrow’s rushing yardage could be one of those NFL betting lines to keep an eye on if you work with a sportsbook casino that offers it.)

Similarly, Burrow took three sacks Sunday against the Chargers and was frequently flushed from the pocket; if the Bengals’ line can give him more time to go throw his progression, however, he’s likely to be more effective against the Browns secondary (18th in pass defense by DVOA last year) and with the many tools at his disposal including Joe Mixon, AJ Green, and Tyler Boyd, all of whom should be looking to bounce back from disappointing performances in Week 1.

Finally, Joe Mixon was held to 69 yards on 19 carries in Week 1; against a Browns rushing defense that ranked 30th in DVOA last year, he should find much more success in NFL Week 2. 

NFL Week 2 Preview Summary

The Cleveland Browns have too much talent on offense—and the Cincinnati Bengals simply don’t have enough defensive playmakers—to find themselves struggling to score for a second consecutive week. If they can get off to a quick start and get OBJ going early, they should be able to get out to an early lead. If that lead forces the Bengals into obvious throwing situations, then Myles Garrett and the rest of the front four could pin their ears back and go after Burrow. That would neutralize the Bengals run game, which is where they would otherwise have the best chance of success against the more talented Browns. While hoping for offensive fireworks may still be too much (it’s hard to trust Cleveland until Stefanski proves these Browns are different from the many other much-hyped Browns teams of recent seasons), they should have more than enough to outlast the less-talented Bengals.

Betting Picks and Predictions

When it comes to NFL betting picks, the Cleveland Browns should be a relatively safe pick at -6. (The Bengals pushed in Week 1 and the Browns failed to cover, but the Browns are simply much more talented than this Bengals team.) Picking the over may still be a bit optimistic, depending on where the total is set at your sportsbook casino, especially given that both teams were significantly under in Week 1.

Our prediction: Cleveland Browns 27, Cincinnati Bengals 13

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