CINCINNATI (AP) — Cleveland Browns coach Kevin Stefanski can’t see any other way to look at Sunday’s division matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals.
“We are 4-4, we have to get a win,” Stefanski said of his battered and underachieving team. “Our lives depend on it, is the way we look at it. We are desperate, and that is where our focus is.”
Some of the team’s focus this week has been elsewhere, however.
Receiver Odell Beckham Jr. — and his father — have been drawing a lot of attention this week. Odell Beckham Sr. shared a video on social media highlighting times when quarterback Baker Mayfield didn’t throw the ball to the three-time Pro Bowler.
The video has caused controversy and Beckham was absent from practice on Wednesday and Thursday.
Aside from that drama, Cleveland is just in a rut. The Browns offense has produced just 41 points in the past three games with explosive plays a rarity. They couldn’t get anything going in last week’s 15-10 loss to the Steelers.
Mayfield has been playing with a fractured left shoulder and both starting tackles are injured. Stefanski’s play-calling has come under scrutiny.
The Bengals (5-3) are every bit as motivated after a baffling 34-31 loss to the then-1-5 New York Jets. A victory Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium would keep Cincinnati in contention at the top of the division with the Baltimore Ravens, a team they routed 41-17 on Oct. 24.
The Bengals already beat the Steelers in the first meeting of the teams in September.
Beating Cleveland “puts us in a great position for the first half of the season,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “This one is an important one. To be 3-0 in the division, to have taken a game from each team we played when we had the opportunity, puts us in a really good spot. Winning Sunday is our focus and being 3-0 in the division is a by-product of that.”
Cleveland’s aerial game has barely gotten off the ground.
Mayfield has thrown just six touchdown passes, and the Browns rank near the bottom in numerous passing categories. This was supposed to be a team that could run it and throw it, but to this point the Browns are one dimensional.
Dropped passes, poor throws, bad play calls and broken routes have all contributed to the passing problems.
WHAT WAS THAT?
The Bengals are still not entirely sure what happened that caused them to lose 34-31 to the Jets last Sunday after win over Baltimore the previous week.
Quarterback Joe Burrow still threw three touchdown passes, keeping him among the NFL leaders. But Jets backup QB Mike White shredded the Cincinnati defense for 405 yards and three touchdowns just one week after throwing his first in the NFL.
The Beckham drama frayed nerves this week and caused some unnecessary stress at a time when the Browns didn’t need it.
Mayfield said he wasn’t worried about it affecting wide receiver Jarvis Landry, Beckham’s close friend.
Mayfield feels Landry has his back.
“Jarvis wants to win just as badly as I do,” Mayfield said. “Those are the types of guys and the types of focus that we need to have right now.”
Said Stefanski: “I’m not worried about Jarvis.”
After piling up the catches and touchdowns in recent weeks, Bengals star rookie receiver Ja’Marr Chase had an off-week. He had nine targets with just three receptions. He had a touchdown catch but also dropped a TD pass in the end zone.
Chase had a problem with drops in the preseason, but Taylor said he’s not concerned.
“For Ja’Marr and all those (young) guys, they’re coming to that point, though, usually around Thanksgiving, where guys have got to make sure they are consistent with their approach. Because if you’re not, that’s where you feel the longevity of the season a little bit. Our coaches have really been on top of the players about that, and our guys have been really disciplined — Ja’Marr included.”
Chase said the players are locked in.
“The big thing is just because the organization really needs it,” he said. “Just to get back on our feet after we lost to the New York Jets. We have to go out and execute. We’re playing against a very great defense. We’ve got to want it more.”
“It feels like every game we’ve played this season has been the biggest game, because it has,” Taylor said. “It doesn’t seem like coach-speak, it just feels like the biggest game. But we do know how important these divisional games are. And there’s not much that needs to be said on my behalf. These guys know how critical it is.”