The 7–0 Bengals host the Cleveland Browns on Thursday night this week, and all eyes will be on Andy Dalton, as he has struggled so often in the past during marquee night games. Is this the year he shakes off that reputation and gets Cincinnati to 8–0? Or will the Johnny Manziel-led Browns pull off the upset on the road? Don Banks makes his pick for Thursday Night Football below:
• Last week: 11–3; Season: 80–39 (.672).
• Worst pick in Week 8: Green Bay 24, Denver 20 (Actual score: Broncos 29–10).
Identifying a legitimate weakness in the Bengals’ franchise-best 7–0 start this season is challenging, but history tells us that Cincinnati’s playoff disappointments of the past four years have been presaged by its weak showing in prime time games since the start of 2011. And that’s where tonight’s visit from the Browns (2–6) becomes a decent measuring stick for these new-look Bengals, who will be playing under the bright lights in their next three games, with Cleveland followed by a Week 10 Monday night home game against Houston and a just-flexed Sunday night encounter at NFC West-leading Arizona in Week 11.
As everyone can recite by heart, Cincinnati QB Andy Dalton hasn’t won in the playoffs (0–4), and has struggled when the rest of the football world is watching him play on either a Thursday, Sunday or Monday night. He’s just 3–7 as a starter in night games, with an 11 touchdown-11 interception stat line. His first chance to start turning those numbers around comes against the Browns, a team that thumped Cincinnati 24–3 in Paul Brown Stadium on a Thursday night in Week 10 last season. Dalton was abysmal in that game, compiling a microscopic passer rating of 2.0 in the three-touchdown defeat.
But that was then and this is now. The Bengals have met every challenge this season, flashing a resiliency and consistency they have never before exhibited. I’d be shocked if “old Andy” showed up for this game, and I like Cincinnati’s chances even more with the news that second-year Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel will sub for banged up Cleveland starter Josh McCown. Manziel has played decently this season when given a chance, but in his first career start, against the Bengals at home in Week 15 of last season, he was at his rookie-year worst, throwing for just 80 yards with two interceptions and three sacks in a 30–0 rout that Cincinnati thoroughly enjoyed.
The Bengals’ big recent wins against Seattle and Pittsburgh—both fourth-quarter comebacks—won’t resonate as much if they somehow let the Browns steal this game, but Dalton and Co. have been focused and locked in this season. They’ve taken care of business every week, scoring the second most points in the AFC (198) and allowing the second fewest (132) in the conference. And finally, against the Browns, they’ll find a way to shine even brighter than the lights they’re playing under.