Do you remember the scene about halfway through “Groundhog Day” when Bill Murray’s character Phil Connors is just over it? He has been stuck in the same day for what to him must seem like years. He delivers his scripted lines with apathy bordering on anger. In frustration, he berates his staff and all the revelers in one succinct delivery, “This is pitiful. A thousand people freezing their butts off waiting to worship a rat… Groundhog Day used to mean something in this town. They used to pull the hog out and they used to eat it!.”
He has thoroughly and fundamentally had enough of Groundhog Day. Keep that mentality in mind as I tell you about the Cleveland Browns (0-12) hosting the Cincinnati Bengals (4-7-1) on Sunday.
Are the Browns favored?
I think by now you know better than to ask. No, sadly the Orange and Brown are 5.5 point home underdogs this weekend, marking the thirteenth straight game in 2016 in which Las Vegas gives them no credit. So far, Vegas is proving to be remarkably astute judges of character.
Do the Bengals Care?
Actually, they just might. Cincinnati is two-and-a-half games out of first place (ties are wonderful). They still need to play both Pittsburgh (7-5) and Baltimore (7-5) one more time each so they have a fighting chance if they run the table and get a little luck. The Wild Card is proving to be an even more exclusive club than the AFC North with the five and six seeds standing at 9-3 (Kansas City) and 8-4 (Denver). The Bengals’ best road to the postseason runs through the division, but the road is long and narrow at best. The Browns have been eliminated from playoff contention, but you likely knew that sometime around Labor Day.
Sunday marks the second leg of the annual Battle of Ohio, and Cleveland can at best earn a split. Cincinnati defeated their guests 31-17 in Week 7, extending their win streak against Cleveland to four. The Bengals have dominated the rivalry all century. Since the Browns’ return, they are 12-23 against their cross-state foes. Cleveland hasn’t swept the two-game series in a single season since 2002 which, coincidentally, was their last playoff appearance – fourteen years ago.
Since the Browns and Bengals last clashed, the Queen City Kitties went 1-3-1 with a bye week thrown in for good measure. A three game skid against New York, Buffalo, and Baltimore likely ended their season, though last week’s win over Philadelphia gives them a faint pulse. The Bengal offense ranks 23rd in points scored (20.4 ppg) while the defense is a slightly more respectable 14th (21.6 ppg). One of the oddest stories surrounding the club is placekicker Mike Nugent’s recent struggles. On the season, he is 22-of-27 on field goals (81.5%), but he has also missed on five extra point attempts (21-of-26, 80.8%) which gives him the dubious distinction of having a higher field goal percentage in three point kicks than in one-pointers. The former Buckeye has connected on only two of his past six extra point attempts, and some winter weather on Sunday may further fluster Nugent.
The Browns enjoyed their bye week unseasonably late in 2016 and considering their record and prospects a week off feels more like punishment for a group that is eagerly making vacation plans for January. Still, an extra week of rest and planning can’t hurt can it? Here are the Browns’ number following a bye week the past five seasons:
The Browns are 1-4 after the bye over the past five years. However, it’s worth noting that the club employed four different head coaches over that stretch so making sweeping declarations becomes difficult. Suffice to say the week off has done little to position the Browns for success.
We have long since abandoned #16in16, my quest to see sixteen different quarterbacks under center for the Browns. They gave it the old college try using seven signal callers at various points during the campaign. Now we look to the future, the illustrious #OhFor16in16. If Cleveland manages to take the collar for four solid months future fans will have little trouble recalling which year the ignominy took place. “Which year did the Browns go 0-16? Oh, that’s right, it was 2016.” Too simple. The road to imperfection gets easier from here. Five Thirty Eight gives Cleveland a 25% chance to win on Sunday. That is near their high-water mark in the final quarter of the season after which their chances of winning are currently listed at 11%, 30%, and 9%. A loss here would really grease the rails for the number one pick in next year’s draft.
The good news for Phil Connors is that eventually Groundhog Day did end. He got his life in order, became a better person, and finally earned the reward of February 3. Browns fans hope that they too will see a winning or at least competitive season someday. No matter how bad the 2016 season gets, it too will eventually end. Then free agency and the Draft will offer a chance for Cleveland to break the cycle of inadequacy and contend once again. Of course, if all else fails, the team can always emulate Phil Connors and try the whole tank again. And again. And again. And again…