CINCINNATI -- As has been mentioned often this week, for the first time in a generation the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals have a November ballgame that's worthy of attention from the rest of the NFL.
With the Bengals' loss last week at Baltimore, the Browns are suddenly in the thick of the AFC North race and could inch dramatically closer to first place if they beat their in-state foes Sunday afternoon at Paul Brown Stadium. A win would move the Browns within a half game of the Bengals' lead ahead of Cincinnati's bye next week. For the first time in a long time, playoff fever has attacked the entire Buckeye State.
A win is possible for Cleveland, too. Despite coming in with a 4-5 record, the Browns are already responsible for one of the 6-4 Bengals' losses this season. Way back in Week 4, Cleveland's defense stood firm in a 17-6 win at home over the Bengals.
When you watch the 81st edition of the Battle of Ohio, you'll definitely want to keep a close eye on both top 5 defenses. You'll also want to keep an eye on the following:
Weather report: One week after their kickers and quarterback struggled in windy Baltimore -- gusts got as high as 28 mph -- the Bengals could be facing worse conditions at home this weekend. According to the National Weather Service, strong storms are expected to move across the Midwest on Sunday, hitting Southwest Ohio while the Bengals and Browns are playing. Lightning delays could occur at multiple games in the path of the severe weather, including Sunday's contest. In addition to intense downpours, winds with gusts up to 21 mph are being predicted. Said punter Kevin Huber about preparing for such harrowing elements: "You have to kind of trust when you're out on the field in pregame. You've got to trust that's what it's going to be like all game." It doesn't sound like that's a guarantee this week, even though coach Marvin Lewis believes the inclement weather will hold off until after the ballgame is over.
Red zone matchup: Keep a close eye on the football when the Bengals possess it inside the Browns' 20. In an otherwise balanced matchup, this is one of the few areas in which there appears to be a mismatch. Cincinnati's offense has been pretty good much of the year in the red zone, ranking sixth in efficiency at 64 percent. As good as it has been overall, Cleveland's defense hasn't been that impressive inside its own 20. The Browns rank last in the league in defensive red zone efficiency, allowing scores on 68 percent of plays inside their 20-yard line. Of course, for this to be an issue for either team, the Bengals' offense has to reach the red zone. Against the Ravens last week, it took the Bengals nine drives before they reached the red zone. They were 1-for-2 on their only red zone drives of the game.
Matchup in the trenches: In addition to seeing how well the teams fare against one another inside the 20s, keep an eye on the Bengals' offensive line and the Browns' defensive line. Cincinnati enters this game without offensive guard Kevin Zeitler, who was ruled out Friday with a foot injury. It'll be the first game in his two years that Zeitler will miss, prompting the Bengals to likely bring Mike Pollak off the bench to play his spot. The sixth-year veteran hasn't started a game since 2011 and has missed most of this season with a knee injury, but coaches are confident that he'll play well if called upon. Pollak, center Kyle Cook and left guard Clint Boling, in particular, will be facing a Browns defensive line that boasts one of the biggest and strongest interior players in the league in Phil Taylor. Defensive ends Ahtyba Rubin and Desmond Bryant have been headaches for offensive linemen, as well. Outside linebackers Jabaal Sheard and Barkevious Mingo will play close to the line too, providing an added element to the Bengals' blocking schemes.
Outside battle: While the threat of inclement weather could force both teams into running the ball, still pay close attention to the battle on the outside between Bengals receiver A.J. Green and cornerback Joe Haden. In their earlier meeting, Haden got the better of the competition, holding Green to just seven catches for 51 yards. It seemed like every step Green took, Haden was right there with him. Even Green's yard-after-catch numbers were abysmal in that game -- he had only four. While Haden will be trying to lock him down, the Bengals are going to use a combination of corners Adam Jones, Terence Newman and Dre Kirkpatrick to slow receivers Josh Gordon and Davone Bess. Since Chris Crocker is doubtful with a hamstring injury, when Bess lines up in the slot, he likely will see Kirkpatrick opposite him.