Plain and simple, teams in the AFC North just don't like one another. They can't stand each other. If there is a division in the NFL in which the teams involved have the truest sense of hate for one another, it's this one.
Just think about it. Whenever the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns get together, enormous, vocal crowds usually turn out. Both franchises can enter a particular meeting having a poor season, stumbling to their respective losing records and still, FirstEnergy Stadium or Paul Brown Stadium will be rocking. That's what makes a true football rivalry.
This year, though, neither team appears to be bad. Far from it. The Bengals are a hot pick to end up in the AFC Championship Game, and the Browns, post-Trent Richardson trade, are suddenly the darling upstart of the conference. If there has been an underdog in the AFC to root for the last two weeks, Cleveland has been it.
When the two teams meet for the first time this season at 1 p.m. ET Sunday, here are four things you'll want to watch for:
1. The homecoming. As a teenager in Cleveland, Brian Hoyer attended Browns games, dreaming he'd one day get an opportunity to start a game there as a professional quarterback. That day is on the horizon. It's Sunday. For the first time in his five-year career, the longtime backup will be taking starting snaps for the team he grew up cheering, in the city that raised him. After his impressive performance in last week's win over Minnesota, Hoyer was given the starting nod again this week, playing in place of Brandon Weeden, who has been dealing with a thumb injury. Watch for Hoyer's excitement level. Understandably, it will be high, and a packed home crowd ought to make it even higher. If he's too pumped up, though, it could be a problem for the Browns. If the Bengals can put pressure on him early and fluster him, the homecoming could be a long one for Hoyer.
2. The battle in the trenches. Both teams feature offensive and defensive lines with a mix of young, promising talent and cagey, wily veterans. Cleveland's offensive line is anchored by six-time Pro Bowler Joe Thomas. The left tackle will be matched up with Bengals fifth-year defensive end Michael Johnson, who had his best game of the season last week against Green Bay. Among Johnson's more memorable plays from the win was his forced fumble that led to Terence Newman's recovery and 58-yard touchdown return, and his pass deflection on a fourth-and-5 one drive later that iced the win. Cincinnati's offensive line is anchored by Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth. He likely will be paired against defensive end Desmond Bryant. When Bryant isn't giving him trouble, though, rookie outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo could. Mingo and Whitworth hail from the same Louisiana town and college football power (LSU) and have a long friendship that will be put to the test on the field for the first time.
3. Cameron coverage belongs to ... Be on the lookout for where Browns tight end Jordan Cameron lines up on the line of scrimmage, and keep an eye out for which Bengals linebacker gets awarded the responsibility of covering him. Through three games, Cameron already has tied a career high in receptions (20) and set career marks with 269 receiving yards and four touchdowns. At the start of his third season, Cameron is blossoming into another one of the NFL's bright, young, pass-catching talents at tight end. Cincinnati certainly has had its eye on him all week, and the team feels confident it has a game plan that will stop him. Against the Vikings last week, Cameron had six receptions for 66 yards and three touchdowns.
This will be the first such test for the Bengals since the season opener, when Chicago's Martellus Bennett had three catches, including a touchdown in the Bears' 24-21 win. In the Bengals' other two games, injuries kept them from seeing just how effective the tight end could be in those offenses. The Packers' Jermichael Finley went down with a concussion in the first quarter of Cincinnati's 34-30 win last week.
4. Cornerback watch. There may be more attention paid to the Bengals' pregame by their fans than anything else Sunday as they await the fate of their cornerbacks. Three of them, Leon Hall, Dre Kirkpatrick and Newman, were dealing with injuries this week. Safety Reggie Nelson also had his own injury concerns. Only Newman appears set to go, though, after Kirkpatrick, Hall and Nelson were listed as doubtful on the Bengals' injury report Friday. Coach Marvin Lewis is holding out hope that more optimistic news may come Sunday morning, but there is a strong possibility it might not. If it doesn't, look for Brandon Ghee, a young cornerback who is just returning from a concussion that had kept him out since the preseason, to slip into Hall's role. Newly re-signed safety Chris Crocker also could be in the mix to replace Nelson if need be. The cornerback watch will be a captivating one because it could have an impact on the Bengals' efforts at slowing Browns receiver Josh Gordon, who hauled in 10 passes from Hoyer last week.