CLEVELAND (AP) — An in-state NFL rivalry pitting distant neighbor against neighbor has lost its bite.
Cincinnati vs. Cleveland is more of a professional pillow fight these days.
The battle of 0-hio.
Lumped together at the bottom of the AFC North’s standings, the Bengals (0-3) and Browns (0-3) both enter Sunday’s matchup winless and desperate to salvage seasons that are quickly slipping away. They haven’t both been without a win after three games since their matchup in 2008, when Cleveland rolled into Paul Brown Stadium and pulled out a 20-12 victory.
After losing their first 14 games last season, the Browns are falling back on old habits. They start slowly, make too many mistakes (dropped passes and penalties top the list), mount a comeback and lose. Week after week.
The league’s youngest team is again taking its lumps.
“We are becoming more experienced as an offense, and every individual is becoming more experienced every time we step on that field,” said rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer, who has been sacked 10 times and thrown seven interceptions. “We are learning. We are getting better. We definitely feel that progress here, and that mentality is what drives us at practice to get better.”
While the Browns suffer through growing pains, the Bengals are hurting nearly as badly.
Following consecutive home losses to start the season, they built a 21-7 lead last week at Green Bay only to have Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers work some typical Lambeau Field magic and pull out a 27-24 overtime win.
Cincinnati’s offense finally shook off some rust under new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, who took over after Ken Zampese was fired just two games into the season.
Anyone, really, could see the Bengals weren’t getting the ball enough to two of their top playmakers: wide receiver A.J. Green and running back Joe Mixon. That changed against the Packers as Green had 10 catches, equaling his total in the first two games and Mixon had 18 carries, one more than in his first two.
“It was a step in the right direction,” Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton said. “We didn’t get shut out. We did score a couple of touchdowns, so we have that going for us. At the end of the day, winning is all that matters.”
And, at the end of Sunday, one of Ohio’s teams may finally do just that.
GARRETT GOES: The Browns could get a huge lift if rookie defensive end Myles Garrett, the No. 1 overall pick, makes his regular-season debut.
He missed Cleveland’s first three games with a sprained right ankle, but the speedy rusher returned to practice this week and all signs are pointing to him playing — at least a little. The team is taking a conservative approach with their prized prodigy and don’t want to rush Garrett, who was so impressive during the preseason.
“I hope he can have some meaningful snaps out there because we know what he can do and the difference he makes for this team when he is out there and is able to rush the passer,” All-Pro tackle Joe Thomas said.
BURFICT BACK: Bengals bad-boy linebacker Vontaze Burfict is back.
He’ll return Sunday after serving his latest three-game suspension for an illegal hit. Burfict also missed Cincinnati’s first three games last season, and quickly made up for lost time when he returned, played 76 percent of the snaps in his first game back, a 22-7 win over the Dolphins.
In 2015, he missed the first six games while recovering from a knee injury. In his return in Pittsburgh, he played 48 percent of the snaps and had five tackles, including one on Le’Veon Bell that resulted in the running back tearing up his right knee.
“He’s kind of the straw that stirs the drink there,” Browns coach Hue Jackson said.
OLD FRIENDS: Browns right guard Kevin Zeitler will get his first view from the opposite side of “The Battle of Ohio.”
He spent five seasons with Cincinnati before signing a five-year, $60 million free agent contract with Cleveland in March. The Bengals made no formal attempt to re-sign the former first-round draft pick.
“I have no hard feelings about that,” he said. “It is a business. They have a lot of talented players on that team that they need to take care of in the upcoming years. It is what it is.”
DEEP BALL: The Bengals haven’t hit many big plays, with Dalton repeatedly missing Green on deep throws. They haven’t thrown many deep passes overall, and the lack of a big play has been one of the offensive issues on offense.
“That’s part of what we’re trying to do now,” Dalton said. “We’ve got to find a way to get more chunk plays and get the ball down the field.”