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Stakes are high for Battle of Ohio

To those living outside the Buckeye State, the Battle of Ohio hasn’t been much more than a skirmish in terms of NFL relevance. That changes Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.

For the first time in six seasons the rivalry between the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals means more than state bragging rights, side bets and being able to show your face at work Monday morning. Fans of the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers will be rooting — grudgingly, of course — for the Browns to help them reel in the division-leading Bengals.

The 6-4 Bengals lead the AFC North over the Browns and Ravens, both at 4-5. Even the 3-6 Steelers are not totally out of the division chase.

The Browns won the Week 4 meeting 17-6 in Cleveland with quarterback Brian Hoyer. With Hoyer out for the season and Brandon Weeden benched, Jason Campbell — the 20th quarterback to make a start for the Browns since their return to the league in 1999 — tries to give Cleveland its first Battle of Ohio season sweep since 2002.

“It’s a big rivalry. It’s my first year here so I haven’t been able to be in the ones in the past,” Campbell said, “but being here in Ohio I understand it’s a huge game. It’s a more important game because it’s a division game. That’s what makes the stakes really high.”

How high? Consider this: Sunday’s game marks the first time since 1995 the Browns and Bengals have met when both teams held first and second place in the division. It’s also their biggest meeting since Week 16 of the 2007 season. That’s when a 19-14 Bengals’ victory severely damaged the Browns’ postseason chances.

Cincinnati leads the regular-season series 42-38, including a 26-14 record at home.

Coaches tend to shy away from the term “must-win.” But for a Bengals team coming off two straight overtime losses a win over the Browns would certainly give them a needed push toward their first division title since 2009.

“Well, I don’t want to help them,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said of the increasingly competitive AFC North. “I’ve just got to worry about us. That’s the important thing, that every time we come out here, it means something. Hopefully we’ve built to that, where every game means another opportunity down the line. That’s what’s important. That’s what everybody strives for.”

A Browns win would tighten up the AFC North race and keep them in the wild-card hunt. Both Cleveland and Baltimore (along with Miami and San Diego) are one game behind the New York Jets for the final playoff spot. The Browns, who haven’t made the postseason since 2002, need some rare road wins to get there.

Cleveland is 33-83 on the road since 1999, including a 1-3 record this season. Four of its final seven games are on the road — at Cincinnati, New England, the Jets and Pittsburgh.

“It takes great focus to win on the road,” Cleveland coach Rob Chudzinski said. “It’s a mentality, a business mentality when you go on those trips that you have to go and play a full-team game. That’s where we’re at; offense, defense, special teams have to play well together. … You don’t have a lot of fans so you have to generate your own energy. Those are the things that we need to try to do this weekend.”

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