1. Jackson’s return to Cleveland
In the teams’ first matchup of the season, the Browns gave Bengals special assistant Hue Jackson a hard time for going to a division rival so quickly after getting fired as Cleveland’s head coach in Week 9.
Jackson was booed by the many Browns fans in attendance, Damarious Randall taunted him by handing the ball he intercepted to his old coach and quarterback Baker Mayfield refused a hug, later calling Jackson “fake.”
»RELATED: Browns coach not surprised Bengals defense has improved
Now Jackson is making his first appearance back at FirstEnergy Stadium and is sure to draw even more attention. Some of the Bengals players had called the Browns’ actions disrespectful but say they won’t be baited into reacting.
“No, we’re not worried about what they’re saying, their back and forth with Hue,” Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. “We all know Hue built that team at the end of the day, so all of this is just bulletin board material.”
2. Mixon going for a milestone
Tyler Boyd reached his 1,000-yard receiving milestone last week, and now running back Joe Mixon should hit that mark for rushing yards Sunday.
Mixon needs just five more for 1,000 yards rushing, and with the team’s two best receivers out – Boyd sprained his MCL last week after reaching his milestone and A.J. Green (toe) is on injured reserve – the Bengals likely will be leaning on him even more.
“I’ve just got to keep approaching the game and playing the same way as I have,” Mixon said of nearing the milestone. “You go hard and you are doing the things you need to do, the stats will come. It’s going to come with that.”
The 2017 second-round draft pick is coming off the two biggest workloads of his career and his first back-to-back 100-yard rushing games.
3. Testing out young receivers
The Bengals have been waiting for some young receivers to step up and help Boyd while Green has been out, but now that Boyd has been declared out for Sunday, it’s time to really put them to the challenge.
John Ross has been successful getting to the end zone but still has been limited in his receptions. Cody Core and Alex Erickson have been around a few years now and likely get more targets, but Cincinnati could also throw 2018 seventh-round draft pick Auden Tate into the action and perhaps Josh Malone, who finally appears healthy, gets some looks.
“You got to quickly convert your thinking to what do I have and what can I do with it?” Cincinnati offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “I do recognize that the defense changes. What they do changes when you lose those guys. This isn’t the first time all year we have encountered somebody changing their strategy because we lost someone. That’s the NFL and you have to make your next move.”
4. Something to play for
The Browns are still in the wild card race with a chance to sneak into the playoffs with wins the next two weeks and a lot of help elsewhere.
The Bengals say they don’t care about trying to play the role of the spoiler, but they did keep their last two opponents from the postseason last year. Cincinnati already has been eliminated but also is trying not to finish last in the AFC North, where it currently stands.
“It would be lovely for us to go out there and finish the season strong against two division opponents,” Dunlap said.
Cleveland currently is the 10th seed for the AFC playoffs, behind the Colts, Titans and Dolphins.
5. Mayfield looking for repeat performance
Cincinnati was prepared to stop Nick Chubb and the Browns’ running game in the first matchup, and Mayfield ended up stealing the show, completing 19 of 26 passes for 258 yards and four touchdowns.
Chubb had 28 carries for 84 yards, averaging just 3.0 yards per carry, and still has been an important part of Cleveland’s offense, but Lewis said Mayfield has been the difference for the Browns this season.
“The quarterback is playing really well — they’re getting great quarterback play from Baker (Mayfield),” Lewis said. “The young guys around him (have played well) — (Jarvis) Landry, (Nick) Chubb, (David) Njoku, (Breshad) Perriman has come on, (Antonio) Callaway, and their line has settled in and is doing a nice job. That’s been big. Defensively, you have all of those guys they’ve been adding time and time again. They’re all fitting together well right now.”
The Bengals appear in better position to stop Mayfield with their cornerbacks stepping up their play the last couple weeks as Cincinnati has turned to more of a man defense. Cincinnati has limited its last two opponents to less than 300 yards of offense.
Bengals at Browns, 1 p.m., WHIO-TV Ch. 7, Ch. 12, 700, 1530, 95.3, 101.1, 102.7, 104.7