Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Battle of Ohio: TWTW's Bengals vs. Browns Preview

Danville, Kentucky -- As of this Sunday, it will have been 364 days since the lowly Cleveland Browns prevailed in a game of football. The 0-12 Browns are on a 15 game losing streak dating back to week 15 of last season. Although the Indians and Cavaliers have improbably brought a winning mentality back to that city on the burning river, the Browns remain hapless. To those loyal fans faithfully rooting for the Browns during this winter of discontent, the mere thought of a Cleveland Browns victory seems as distant as the warmth of spring, the touch of sunlight in May, or the scent of freshly-bloomed flowers in the Hocking Hills forest.

The Browns have had their share of close, nail-biter losses this season. Four of their losses have been by less than a touchdown: a 28-26 loss to the Tennessee Titans and a 31-28 loss to the New York Jets stand out as particularly heart-breaking. Yet, telling a Browns fan that his team has been just a few lucky breaks away from a win or two this season is cold comfort; like offering a pair of hole-ridden mittens to a man about to plunge into the chilly depths of frozen Lake Erie.

But small flickering embers of hope can be found even amidst the deepest, darkest winter. The beauty of football is that on any given Sunday, no matter how unthinkable or improbable, any team can win if its players are willing to dig deep enough and put their bodies on the line for their city. This weekend the Browns of Northeast Ohio will square off against their rivals from the South: the Cincinnati Bengals.

Neither team is very scary. I'd bet my big green John Deere tractor that Ohio State's football team could beat both the Bengals and the Browns handily. Ohio State would probably beat the Browns 42-15. Ohio State's margin of victory against Cincinnati would be narrower, perhaps requiring over-time and some crooked officiators like Ohio State's win against the University of Michigan.

Cincinnati has a few more victories than Cleveland, but football fandom is only marginally less depressing down south. The Bengals are having a disappointing season of their own. They are the owners of a 4-7-1 record thanks to the NFL's unwillingness to take a stand against European nonsense like "ties." The Bengals have their own dubious streak, as they have not won back-to-back games in more than a year. On Sunday, these mostly inept teams will battle for dominance over the great state of Ohio.

Many pundits, including yours truly, have written that the 2016 election was decided by the Forgotten Man. According to this narrative Donald J. Trump won because he improbably inspired millions of weary, downtrodden, ignored folks across this country to cast their vote in favor of change. If the 2016 election was about the Forgotten Man, then Sunday's Bengals vs. Browns match-up is primarily a football game about the Forgotten Rivalry. All the biased national media ever wants to talk about is the Dallas Cowboys and whoever they are playing that week, but wise football fans know the intensity of the Battle of Ohio, a tradition that dates back to the Nixon Administration.

You won't hear Skip Bayless or the talking heads at ESPN discuss the Forgotten Rivalry much. But the passion is real, as is the cultural divide between urban Cleveland and "practically-in-Kentucky" Cincinnati. The Bengals have more talent, but the winless Browns are hankering for a W like I hanker for spaghetti lovingly topped with magisterial cinnamon-chili sauce.

These teams are more evenly matched than they look. I predict a narrow Bengals victory over the win-starved Browns. Cleveland's athletic quarterback-turned-wide-receiver (and former Ohio State Buckeye) Terrelle Pryor will continue to impress, burning the Bengals defense. The Browns will have the element of surprise on their side, as they keep the Bengals off-guard by liberally rotating their four different quarterbacks in and out of the game. However, when push comes to shove the red-headed menace Andy Dalton will lead Cincinnati to victory. The pale-skinned ginger is at his best when the sun is obscured by grey wintry clouds and flurries of snow.

The Browns will play better than you'd expect a winless team to play, but will ultimately fall to 0-13 and inch another game closer towards solidifying their place in the NFL history books alongside the 0-16 2008 Detroit Lions. The bitter winter of Cleveland's discontent may end someday, but not this Sunday.