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Thursday Night Football Preview: The Battle of Ohio

The winner of tonight's Ohio battle will jump to first place in the AFC North. Who comes out victorious?

What's gotten into the AFC North? Through nine NFL weeks, the division is the only one in football where all four teams have winning records. And, yes, that includes the Cleveland Browns, who haven't had a winning season since 2007.

Tonight's Thursday dumpster fire of a game features two teams from the division - the Browns and Bengals - in a contest that actually means a lot to the AFC North standings. First place is on the line. What should we be looking for? Is there any reason to believe the six-point Cincinnati favorites will lose?

Let's dig into the numbers.

Run It, Cleveland!

The Browns like to run the ball, but they haven't been very good at it recently. Over their last three games, they've gone from the 7th-best rush offense all the way to 25th according to our Adjusted Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. During that span, they've averaged 52.7 rushing yards per game, down from the 146.4 per game average they saw over their first five contests.

As I mentioned in an article yesterday, this isn't just a result of the loss of center Alex Mack. Brian Hoyer's played like one of the worst quarterbacks in the league during the stretch, despite facing three of the worst pass defenses in the NFL.

Fortunately for Cleveland, Cincinnati ranks dead last against the run according to our metrics. Since Week 2, every team to face the Bengals has rushed for at least 100 yards - and that includes the Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers. They've been bad. Very bad.

So, naturally, in order for Cleveland to win, they're going to have to commit to running the football. They've done that this season, as they have the third-lowest pass-to-run ratio in the league. But over the last three games, that ratio has risen from 0.97 to 1.09.

Our strongest predictor (historical games that analytically match up with what we're about to see tonight) for a Browns win features a contest from 2012 between the Jets and the Rams. Mark Sanchez, a game manager, represents Hoyer in this case, while the running game of Shonn Greene and Bilal Powell are not unlike Ben Tate and Terrance West.

In that game, the Jets threw it a grand total of 20 times while running the football 29 times between their top-two backs. Though both running backs had yards per carry averages under 4.0, the commitment to the run was key in determining the outcome of the game.

The important aspect of that game, too, was how efficient Mark Sanchez was when it was his turn to throw the football. He completed 15 of his 20 passes for 178 yards and a score, a stat line we commonly saw from Brian Hoyer during Weeks 1 through 6 of the 2014 season. While the Browns have come away victorious in two of these three games, they've been fortunate to have been playing some of the worst rosters in the league in Jacksonville, Oakland and Tampa Bay.

If Cleveland commits to their ground attack and plays a field position game, they've got a chance to win.

More Jeremy Hill Domination?

On the other side of the field sits rookie Jeremy Hill, who's going to see the bulk of Cincinnati's backfield touches with Giovani Bernard sidelined again. As I wrote earlier in the week, that's just fine - Hill's actually outperformed Bernard this season.

One of our top predictors for a Bengals win features a 2007 contest between the Jaguars and Bills. Aside from what probably gave the NFL its lowest TV ratings in years (seriously, I can't even imagine watching a JP Losman versus David Garrard game), Jacksonville's victory tells us that Hill could be in store for a big game. Behind a strong performance from Garrard, the Jags ended up running the ball 26 times for 124 yards. Fred Taylor did most of the damage.

But really, our predictors are showing that, in order for the Bengals to win, quarterback Andy Dalton will have to play a top-notch game. As mentioned, Garrard ended up throwing for 296 yards and a touchdown, and that's our second-strongest predictor for a Bengals victory tonight. Our strongest one features a game between New Orleans and Atlanta in 2005, where the Michael Vick-led Falcons threw for 279 yards during a less passer-friendly NFL.

Dalton's not been his best this year without his top weapon, AJ Green, but the Browns' secondary ranks 20th against the pass according to our metrics. There's a chance he has a better-than-usual night, but he'll need to make sure he sustains long drives in order to keep the Browns rushing attack - one that needs to control the clock tonight - off the field.

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