Bengals at Browns: 5 storylines to watch in Battle of Ohio

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Brandon Allen (8) hands off the ball to running back Joe Mixon, right, during the first half of a preseason NFL football game against the Washington Football Team, Friday, Aug. 20, 2021, in Landover, Md. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Credit: Susan Walsh

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Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Brandon Allen (8) hands off the ball to running back Joe Mixon, right, during the first half of a preseason NFL football game against the Washington Football Team, Friday, Aug. 20, 2021, in Landover, Md. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Credit: Susan Walsh

Credit: Susan Walsh

The Cincinnati Bengals’ regular-season finale could be a game full of backups, but they still have something to play for with playoff seeding potentially on the line and an opportunity to carry a four-game winning streak into the postseason.

Backup quarterback Brandon Allen will start in place of Joe Burrow, and with several other starters placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list this week, it seems likely the Bengals will be relying on others to step up and get the win Sunday in the Battle of Ohio at Cleveland.

The Browns already have been eliminated and also will be playing backup Case Keenum in place of injured Baker Mayfield, but they still would like to end the season on a high note after three straight losses. Cleveland was projected to be contenders to win the AFC North this season but enter the game at 7-9.

Here are five storylines to watch for Sunday…

1. Who will be playing?

Burrow was told Tuesday he would not be playing so he can rest up for the playoffs, but it’s unclear if he will be on the bench or if the team will instead tap Jake Browning as the backup from the practice squad.

Seven active-roster players, mostly starters, were on the Reserve/Covid-19 list as of Friday afternoon, including safety Vonn Bell, defensive end Trey Hendrickson, defensive tackles Larry Ogunjobi and B.J. Hill, running back Joe Mixon, center Trey Hopkins and guard Quinton Spain.

Additionally, defensive end Sam Hubbard (thigh), kicker Evan McPherson (groin), D.J. Reader (rest) and tight end C.J. Uzomah (knee/hip) are all listed as questionable to play on the game status report issued Friday.

Some starters will be needed, but this is a game that could feature a slew of practice squad callups.

“We’re trying to put our guys in position to go win a divisional game on the road and help those guys gain some experience for the next couple of weeks, because we’re going to need some of them there, too,” Taylor said.

The Browns also have players questionable because of injury, including much of the secondary. Safeties Ronnie Harrison (ankle) and John Johnson (hamstring) and cornerbacks Troy Hill (knee), Denzel Ward (groin) and Greedy Williams (shoulder) are all uncertain for Sunday.

2. Expectations for Allen

In resting Burrow and other starters, the Bengals aren’t just laying down and accepting defeat. They got two wins out of Allen and Ryan Finley in the last three games last year, so the expectation is still for Allen to put the offense in good enough position to win.

He was solid in his fourth-quarter appearance against the Lions, throwing a 7-yard touchdown to Auden Tate after his first two attempts were incompletions negated by penalties. He is 2-6 in his career starts, including the team’s first road win under Taylor last year at Houston.

“It’s the normal game plan process for us still, just keeping in mind who’s playing for us and how we can put those guys in position to have success,” offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said. “At the end of the day, you know, we expect Brandon to play good football, just like we expect anybody that steps in to play. It’s an NFL football game. These guys are here because we believe in their abilities and Brandon is no different. I thought Brandon did a really nice job last year for us in the time he got to play and expect him to do the same this week.”

Allen said he will try to run the offense the way Burrow would, utilizing the weapons he has around him even if he doesn’t have the same supporting cast that Burrow normally would.

3. Personal goals in reach

Ja’Marr Chase needs just 12 more yards receiving to break Chad Johnson’s record for the most receiving yards in a single season in team history, and he certainly could do it if he plays Sunday. Last week while catching 11 passes for 266 yards and three touchdowns, Chase broke the team’s rookie receiving record as he sits at 1,429 yards and 13 touchdowns. He had the goal of 1,500 yards this season.

Taylor said it’s possible Chase plays.

Tyler Boyd still wants to get 1,000 yards for the regular season so he was hopeful to play, he said Monday. He had just one catch for 11 yards in the last game against the Browns but he had 101 yards and one touchdown on 11 catches in the second meeting of the 2019 season. His career-high is 138 yards, which he recorded Oct. 28, 2018, against Tampa Bay.

Chase and Tee Higgins already have 1,000 yards receiving this season and Boyd is trying to join them.

“I’m used to always finishing out the seasons regardless if we’re losing or winning,” Boyd said. “I’ve never got to this point to where we were able to do that if so, but at the end of the day, I would want to play because I still want to win and still try to achieve all the things I want to accomplish for the season as well.”

4. Stopping the run

With Mayfield out, the Browns will start Keenum but their biggest offensive has always been the running game and short passing game, particularly with the tight ends.

Nick Chubb had 137 yards and two touchdowns in the first game against Cincinnati. He was limited with a rib injury all week in practice but not listed on the game status report and appears good to go. Running back Kareem Hunt is questionable with an ankle injury, and tight end David Njoku questionable with a shoulder injury.

Keenum has appeared in six games this season, including one win as a starter.

“They have a slew of quarterbacks who have played and played well in the league, Nick Mullens, Case Keenum, both those guys have made a lot of plays in the NFL, so we’re preparing like it’s gonna be starting level talent,” cornerback Chidobe Awuzie said. “And obviously, they have a great run game, running scheme and they do a lot of things play-action and stuff like that off of that, so that will be our main focus is to stop the run and so hopefully we could get them to pass the ball to make a couple plays.”

5. Avoiding a sweep

Cleveland swept the Bengals last year and are the only team in the AFC North to beat them this year. The Bengals haven’t forgotten the 41-16 beating they took on Nov. 7, a game in which Cincinnati turned the ball over three times and allowed 153 yards rushing.

“We can’t turn the ball over,” Taylor said. “They had those two explosive plays from their offense where we could have tackled better and communicated better on the two plays. Then offensively really the turnovers put us in a hole. I think that’s what is frustrating when you go back and watch the tape and you see some good movement of the football from some of our drives early in the game. Then the turnovers put us in the hole and they had those two explosive plays and then next thing you know you’re down pretty good. Versus a team like that that can run the ball against you and plays really sound defensive football it just became hard for us to get back in it.”

Cincinnati can finish the regular season 11-6 and 5-1 in the division with a win. The Bengals are 5-2 on the road.


Bengals at Browns, 1 p.m., CBS, 700, 1290, 1530, 95.7, 102.7, 104.7

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