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Thursday Night Football Preview: The Kings of the AFC North Host the Browns

Can the Bengals stay undefeated when the Browns come to town for Thursday Night Football?

This week's Thursday Night Football matchup features two teams that are polar opposites of each other.

The Cincinnati Bengals are being led to an undefeated season by one of the best quarterbacks in the league this year in Andy Dalton, while the Browns are fighting to avoid owning the worst record in their division.

So when these two AFC North division rivals face off on Thursday night, will the Browns be able to do anything to slow down the Bengals or will Cincinatti just keep their perfect season rolling?

The Pre-Game Rundown

The Bengals are 7-0 for the first time in franchise history. Thanks to an all-around squad that boasts the third ranked offense according to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics when adjusted for strength of schedule (and perhaps a bit surprisingly, the most efficient passing offense by these same metrics) and a defensive unit that ranks as the 11th most efficient defense in the league thus far, the Bengals have remained undefeated by steamrolling opponents by an average of 9.4 points per game.

With a fully healthy supporting cast of young and talented playmakers, including Tyler Eifert and Marvin Jones, to complement Pro Bowl wideout A.J. Green, it's no wonder that Dalton is having a career year. He currently owns 1,994 passing yards and a 15:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and his 0.373 Passing NEP per drop back ranks him as the second-most efficient quarterback behind only Carson Palmer (0.374).

On the Browns' side, while their 2-6 record may not show it, this offense has actually fared better than originally expected. Projected by many to be this year's worst offense, Cleveland actually owns the 16th most efficient offense overall according to our schedule-adjusted NEP metrics and the 10th most efficient passing offense thanks in part to favorable matchups early in the year as well as some excellent play by journeyman quarterback Josh McCown.

However, as McCown battles a number of injuries sustained over the last two weeks, backup quarterback Johnny Manziel will be pressed into a starting role on Thursday. All eyes will be on Manziel to see if the second-year signal caller can keep the Browns' offense moving in a tough road matchup.

Luckily for Manziel, he won't have to do it all on his own, as he'll have at his disposal three emerging pass catching talents in Travis Benjamin, Gary Barnidge, and Duke Johnson.

A pleasant surprise for a team that failed to make significant moves this offseason to address the loss of Josh Gordon to suspension, Benjamin's 0.714 Reception NEP per target on the year ranks him as the 25th most efficient wideout with at least 40 targets, sandwiched in between Julian Edelman (0.716) and T.Y. Hilton (.705), and ahead of Emmanuel Sanders (.696), Julio Jones (.696), and Brandon Marshall (0.688).

At tight end, Barnidge has become a sure-handed playmaker that absolutely no one saw coming going into the 2015 season. Barnidge's 1.00 Reception NEP per target actually ranks him as the most efficient tight end with at least 30 targets this year and has helped him accumulate the second most yards among all tight ends and the second most receiving touchdowns among all pass catchers so far this season.

In the backfield, rookie Duke Johnson has turned into a key asset as the team's third-down back, seeing 38 targets since Week 3 and turning those into 33 receptions and 331 yards through the air.

So what can we expect when these two squads square off on Thursday night?

The Browns' Game Script

Manziel will look to rekindle some of the chemistry he had with Benjamin during the early part of the season when he hooked up with the young wideout for three 50-plus yard touchdowns in Weeks 1 and 2.

And if the Browns are going to move the ball against the Bengals' 12th-ranked pass defense that just held the Steelers to just 10 total points last week, Manziel is going to have to get something going with his best playmaker on the outside.

Manziel will also likely lean on Barnidge down the seam and Johnson in the short passing game to slow down a Bengals pass rush that is currently tied for eighth in the league with 20 sacks on the season.

While the passing game may have their hiccups against this tough Bengals secondary, they may be able to find some success against Cincinnati in the running game. The Bengals rank just 19th against the rush, and, on paper at least, this looks like the way to attack Cincinnati if they want to keep the Bengals offense off the field. However, it's still uncertain whether Isaiah Crowell and Robert Turbin will be able to take full advantage of the opportunity and produce anything meaningful on the ground, as these two running backs are combining for a very sub-par -13.94 Rushing NEP on the season.

The Bengals' Game Script

Dalton and the entire Bengals passing game will look to keep the good times rolling when they take the field against the Browns' 21st-ranked passing defense according to our schedule-adjusted defensive NEP metrics.

With the Browns' top corner, Joe Hadenback in the concussion protocol after having already missed two games to a concussion prior to last week's contest, it's likely going to be a long night for Cleveland's secondary. With Haden expected to be out for this game and Green coming off an 11-catch, 118-yard, 1-touchdown performance against the Steelers, he should have a field day on Thursday.

In the backfield, Cincinnati must manage an embarrassment of riches as they find a way to divvy up touches between Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard. As the team's early-down back, Hill is in a good spot for a majority of the workload. And facing the league's 32nd-ranked run defense according to our metrics, Hill could be in store for a huge night on Thursday. The Browns have surrendered 20 carries, 91 yards, and 2 touchdowns to Chris Ivory, 26 carries, 139 yards, and 1 touchdown to Latavius Murray, 21 carries, 212 yards, and 1 touchdown to Justin Forsett, 20 carries and 111 yards to Ronnie Hillman, 19 carries, 128 yards, and 2 touchdowns to Todd Gurley, and most recently, 30 carries and 109 yards to Chris Johnson.

Fantasy Football Implications

With favorable matchups in the passing attack, Dalton, Green, and Eifert are all recommended starts for this week. Dalton is going into this contest with six top-12 quarterback finishes in seven games and faces a secondary giving up the ninth most points to quarterbacks.

While we've already discussed Green's prospects with Haden likely out for this contest, despite facing a team that has surrendered just the 17th most points to tight ends, Eifert should continue his early-season success in this game. The Browns' early-season success against the position is propped up by the fact that they haven't really been challenged yet this year; the best tight end they've faced all season has been Ladarius Green (who hauled in 4 of 6 targets for 53 yards and a touchdown against them in Week 2). As the number two option in the passing game, expect Eifert to put up some nice numbers against the Browns' weak pass defense.

In a game where the Bengals are expected to be in the lead for most of the night, Hill should see plenty of carries against a team giving up the second most points to running backs this year. Bernard could also make for a nice start as well if he can wrestle a few touches away from Hill, as he's a threat to break off a big play on any given down.

This may be a good game to fade the entire Browns offense. Manziel and the Browns are big road underdogs in this contest and will be forced to air it out if they want to keep pace with a team giving up just the 23rd most points to quarterbacks.

The lone start-worthy player on this team may be Barnidge. Though he faces a squad surrendering the 23rd most points to tight ends, this defense has recently given up decent games to the position, surrendering 9 catches for 62 yards to Charles Clay and 10 catches for 105 yards to Heath Miller the last two weeks.

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