The AFC North has become a battle of attrition.
At the start of the season, a Cleveland-Cincinnati battle as a Thursday Night primetime game did not appear to be an ideal television choice.
But as the season moves into its second half, the Browns and the Bengals just may put on one of the more memorable games of the year. Not only is the battle of Ohio a legitimate contest, both of these teams have legitimate playoff aspirations.
Mike Pettine may have been the last choice of all the first-year head coaches, but he has gotten the Browns to play hard on an every-week basis. They may make mistakes and have off-weeks here and there in terms of cohesiveness, but they are a tough, physical bunch.
The Bengals can be a formidable team at home, and they are much more explosive now that A.J. Green is back in the lineup. The 1-2 pass catching duo of Green and Mohamed Sanu may be too athletic for the Browns to contain.
Here’s a look at the key fantasy players in this week’s Thursday night matchup.
QB Brian Hoyer – While Hoyer is far from an elite quarterback, he has played with competence and confidence, and he has done a good job of keeping the Cleveland offense moving this year. The Browns don’t get many chances on national television, so expect them to come out with fire. Hoyer is a smart leader who will keep drives alive. He is completing 57.9 percent of his passes, and look for him to improve on that figure in this game. PLAY HIM.
RB Ben Tate – Tate has emerged as the Browns’ No. 1 back, but the Bengals are going to put much of their effort into stopping him. Tate is a smart, hard runner but he is averaging 3.3 yards per carry. Don’t expect that to change in this game. They would like to get their running game going, but don’t expect it to happen here. BENCH HIM.
WR Andrew Hawkins – As the Browns have emerged as a competitive team this season, Hawkins has emerged as a solid receiver who can get open in key situations. He can catch the pass on third downs that keep drives alive and he can also find the seams downfield. Look for Hawkins to have at least 80 receiving yards and a touchdown vs. the Bengals. PLAY HIM.
QB Andy Dalton – There’s every reason to feel hesitant to put Dalton in your lineup. While he has sensational weapons, he seems to struggle in the biggest games he plays. Since the Browns are a division rival with a winning record, this qualifies as a big game. Look for Dalton to overcome history and take advantage of the talent around him with 240 passing yards and two TD passes. PLAY HIM.
RB Jeremy Hill – Hill emerged in Week Nine with his 154-yard, two-TD effort in Week Nine against Jacksonville, and he gets another chance to put his power-running style on display against a Cleveland run defense that has been vulnerable all season. Hill should be good for 80 yards and a touchdown here. PLAY HIM.
WR A.J. Green – The return of Green gives the Bengals a dynamic characteristic that they struggled to find without him. He will have to overcome the tough coverage of cornerback Joe Hayden, but Green will find a way to catch at least six passes for 90 yards and a touchdown. He runs remarkable patterns and he has the speed to get away from tight coverage. PLAY HIM.
Steve Silverman has been writing, talking about and playing fantasy football since the early 1990s. He co-hosted Fantasy Football Weekly, the first Fantasy Football television program, in 1994 and ’95. Follow Steve on Twitter @profootballboy.