Browns-Bengals Finale Should Have Been For Afc North Title, But Isn’T

Marlon Brando won the Oscar for his performance as a disgraced prizefighter in the 1954 Academy Award-winning movie 'On the Waterfront,' in which his line 'I coulda been a contender' became one of the most famous quotes in motion picture history.

Marlon Brando won the Oscar for his performance as a disgraced prizefighter in the 1954 Academy Award-winning movie 'On the Waterfront,' in which his line 'I coulda been a contender' became one of the most famous quotes in motion picture history.

Browns-Bengals finale should have been for AFC North title, but isn’t

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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for and 850 ESPN Cleveland.

Four downs on Browns (7-9) v. Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)

First down: ‘I coulda been a contender.’ – Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront”.

The Browns lost six close games by failing to finish the deal with the ball in the hands of their offense at the end. 1. In a 33-29 loss to the Chiefs, their final two possessions ended in a punt and interception. 2. In a 47-42 loss to the Chargers, their last possession ended in three incompletions. 3. In a 15-10 loss to the Steelers, their last two possessions ended in a Jarvis Landry fumble and a Landry drop. 4. In a 16-10 loss to the Ravens, their last three possessions ended in a punt, punt and turnover on downs. 5. In a 16-14 loss to the Raiders, needing a first down to seal a 14-13 win, they handed off three times to Nick Chubb and came up 3 yards short, and then gave up a winning field goal. 6. In a 22-20 loss to the Packers, their last possession ended in two incompletions and an interception from the 50-yard line. If they win four of those six games, they claim the AFC North title outright. If they win just two -- just two! -- the game on Sunday against the Bengals would be for the division title. As it is, the Bengals will rest several regulars for their AFC wild card game at home next week and the Browns are playing out the string, unable even to achieve a winning record.

Second down: When will they meet again?

Baker Mayfield’s 6-1 career record against the Bengals includes a 3-0 slate against Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow. The burgeoning AFC North rivalry between the two QBs will be interrupted Sunday because the Bengals are resting Burrow for the playoffs and Mayfield has been shut down for upcoming shoulder surgery. With Mayfield’s future with the Browns uncertain, you wonder if they’ve played their last game as division rivals. Anyways, the events have turned the QB matchup into Case Keenum v. Brandon Allen. Keenum was Denver’s starting quarterback in 2018 when the Browns in Mayfield’s rookie season beat the Broncos, 17-16, in a game that kept alive faint playoff hopes. The following year, Keenum moved on to Washington and was replaced by Joe Flacco as Broncos starting quarterback. The Browns returned to Denver earlier in the year and Allen filled in for an injured Flacco and led the Broncos to a 24-19 win in his first NFL start. Allen found his way to the Bengals and filled in five games in 2020 after Burrow was felled with an ACL injury, winning one.

Third down: ‘Scorecard … scorecard … get your scorecard!’

Besides Burrow, the Bengals will be without some key players who were placed on COVID/reserve this week, including running back Joe Mixon, defensive end Trey Hendrickson, defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, defensive tackle B.J. Hill, safety Vonn Bell, center Trey Hopkins, guard Quinton Spain. They also promoted off the practice squad kicker Elliott Fry in anticipation of deactivating regular kicker Evan McPherson, who was limited during their practice week with a groin injury. Bengals coach Zac Taylor may sit down other active regulars during the game. One to watch is rookie receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who needs only 12 receiving yards to break Chad Johnson’s franchise record of 1,440 for most yards in a season. On the night the Bengals made Chase the fifth overall pick of the 2021 draft he vowed he would break the record. He double-downed on that goal following a 266-yard, 3-touchdown performance last week against the Chiefs. “That’s what I wanted to do,” Chase said of the Bengals record. “I came here with that plan. I wrote it down and I came in with that plan. I’m going to stick with it.” Chase had undoubtedly the worst game of his rookie season in a 40-16 Browns romp in Cincinnati on Nov. 8. Chase was held to 6 receptions on 13 targets for 49 yards. He was the intended receiver on Denzel Ward’s 99-yard Pick 6. Another Burrow pass for Chase was intercepted and he also lost a fumble after a catch. Finally, Chase dropped a 23-yard pass in the end zone and another that should have been a 65-yard touchdown. Ward will miss the rematch after being placed on COVID/reserve on Saturday.

Fourth down: Individual milestones.

With their team goals extinguished, the Browns have some personal milestones within their grasp. Among them: Myles Garrett (15 sacks) likely can’t catch T.J. Watt (21.5) for the NFL lead, but he is five short of Clay Matthews’ record for most in franchise history. Nick Chubb’s 1,201 rushing yards rank third behind the Colts’ Jonathan Taylor (1,734) and Cincinnati’s Mixon (1,205). With Mixon on COVID/reserve, Chubb can finish second in the NFL by holding off Pittsburgh’s Najee Harris (1,172) and Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook (1,080). Chubb’s 5.48-yard rushing average is .01 ahead of Taylor’s (5.47) for the best among NFL running backs. And that’s pretty much all she wrote.

The pick: Browns 30, Bengals 16.

My record: 8-8.