What to watch for in Browns-Bengals 'TNF' tilt

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Don't forget: "Thursday Night Football" will be broadcast exclusively on NFL Network for the remainder of the season, continuing with this week's Browns-Bengals clash. The pregame show will begin at 6 p.m. ET.

For the third week in a row, first place is on the line for Thursday Night Football. This time it's the AFC North lead on the line.

Here's what to watch for as the Cleveland Browns (5-3) move on to Cincinnati to take on Andy Dalton and the Bengals (5-2-1):

1. The Browns haven't been the same on offense since losing Alex Mack to a broken fibula back in Week 6. Minus their Pro Bowl center, Cleveland's once-promising ground attack is rushing for 1.9 yards per carry against a steady stream of eight-man looks. Butchered by Bucs behemoth Gerald McCoy last Sunday, fill-in center Nick McDonald currently grades out as the second-worst player at his position, per Pro Football Focus. Slated to square off with Bengals defensive terror Geno Atkins on Thursday, it's no overstatement to call this matchup the key to Cleveland's night.

2. As we discussed on NFL NOW, Bengals rookie running back Jeremy Hill has an outstanding shot to repeat his breakout performance from Week 9. Hill's 154-yard outburst against the Jaguars proved that he's more than just the thunder to Giovani Bernard's lightning. Able to churn out yards inside and out and looking faster than his 40 time at the combine, Hill is set up for a monster night against a Browns defense ranked 29th in yards allowed and dead last in yards per carry.

3. "I'll be ready," A.J. Green said of the "Battle of Ohio." The Bengals All-Pro wideout played just 39 of 67 snaps on Sunday after missing Cincy's previous three games with a toe injury. In his absence, Mohamed Sanu emerged as a versatile pass-catching difference-maker for the Bengals, averaging 5.5 catches and 98.5 yards per game since Week 6. Joe Haden and Cleveland's secondary will have their hands full.

4. Speaking of the Browns' defense, the unit has done an effective job generating takeaways. Fourth in the NFL with a plus-seven turnover ratio, Cleveland has piled up eight of those thefts over its past three outings. While third-year safety Tashaun Gipson leads the league with six picks, the Browns have struggled to turn those takeaways into points. Still, their ball-hawking skills have helped a bend-but-don't-break outfit that currently ranks second in the NFL in red-zone defense.

COWBOYS AT BEARS
Thursday, Dec. 4, 8 p.m. ET
Watch on NFL Network.
Pregame show starts at 6 p.m. ET on NFL Network.


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5. Brian Hoyer has struggled of late but rolls into Thursday with more touchdowns and fewer picks than Andy Dalton. Hoyer has shrugged off a string of slow starts by making his share of key plays late in games. His 56.7 completion percentage on throws of 15-plus yards through the air is the NFL's best among passers with at least 20 such attempts. He might lead the league in dropped would-be interceptions, but the results speak for themselves: If Hoyer wins Thursday, he becomes just the fourth Browns quarterback in franchise history with nine wins over his first 12 starts.

6. It won't help Hoyer to be without Jordan Cameron, the play-making tight end who was ruled out due to concussion symptoms. The Browns are also staring at a game-time decision for wideout Andrew Hawkins, who left Sunday's win over the Bucs with a thigh/knee injury only to return. We expect Hawkins to suit up against his former team.

7. Location matters: Cleveland has lost 17 straight road games in the AFC North. Dalton, meanwhile, has thrived against the Browns at home, piling up a 3-0 record with a passer rating of 100.4 -- 22.8 points higher than his work by the shores of Lake Erie. For the upstart Browns -- who haven't won the division since 1989 -- learning to win on the road couldn't come at a better time.

The latest Around The NFL Podcast recaps every Sunday game from an action-packed Week 9. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.

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