Can the red-hot Bengals finally get a win against the Browns?

CINCINNATI — Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase had an easy explanation for one of the team’s lowlights of 2021.

In Cincinnati’s Week 9 loss to the Cleveland Browns last season, Chase was matched up against cornerback Denzel Ward in the end zone. But instead of a touchdown on the game’s first drive, Ward jumped the route, intercepted quarterback Joe Burrow’s pass and returned it 99 yards for a touchdown.

“I just ran a s----y route,” Chase said on Wednesday, recalling the play that sparked Cleveland’s 41-16 blowout win.

Explaining one play is far easier than trying to figure out why the Browns are such a conundrum for the Bengals. Cincinnati has lost five straight games to its Ohio rival entering Sunday’s game at Paycor Stadium. In fact, no team in the last two seasons has beaten the Bengals as soundly as Cleveland.

“I really don’t know, man,” Chase said. “I don’t have an answer for that.”

Cincinnati has won seven of its last eight games and is enjoying a four-game winning streak, the longest since coach Zac Taylor took over in 2019. The lone blip during that span was a 32-13 rout against Cleveland on “Monday Night Football” in Week 8.

Burrow is winless in four games against Cleveland, his worst record against any opponent. He and the rest of the starters didn’t play in the team’s Week 18 meeting last season, when the Bengals had already secured the AFC North title.

The two games during Burrow’s rookie year in 2020 were decided late in the fourth quarter. The last two contests have been blowouts, with Cleveland winning by a combined score of 73-29.

When asked Wednesday about the oddity of the team’s recent history against Cleveland, Burrow said the Browns have really good players and the Bengals (8-4) have failed to play to their potential.

“They have Myles Garrett,” Burrow said. “That's different from everybody else.”

Garrett, a fellow former No. 1 overall draft pick -- like Burrow -- is one of the NFL’s best defensive ends. Since 2019, Garrett ranks second in the league in total sacks and pass rush win rate, an ESPN metric powered by NFL Next Gen Stats. Nine of his 68.5 career sacks have come against Cincinnati, which is tied for his highest total against any opponent.

Garrett showed he doesn’t have to be on the pass rush to cause problems, either. In the Week 8 win over Cincinnati, the Bengals started the game with a promising drive that Garrett promptly disrupted. He sagged off the line of scrimmage, batted a pass intended for Cincinnati’s Tee Higgins and ultimately caused an interception.

Taylor said those types of plays are why Cincinnati has struggled with the Browns.

“Turnovers have hurt us,” Taylor said. “I think it's as simple as that.”

Defensively, things have been equally perplexing for the Bengals. Cleveland, known for having for a bruising rushing attack led by Nick Chubb, has dominated Cincinnati through the air.

Some of the Browns’ best passing games in recent years have come against the Bengals. Since 2020, Cleveland averages 7.12 yards per attempt. In five contests of the “Battle of Ohio,” that number skyrockets to 10.06 yards per attempt.

And some of the unheralded names are doing the most damage. Beleaguered or back-up quarterbacks such as Baker Mayfield and Jacoby Brissett have been successful against the Bengals. Cincinnati safety Jessie Bates III pointed out that wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones is one of the Bengals’ primary tormentors, not just stars such as Amari Cooper or past Browns wideout Jarvis Landry.

Sunday’s game against Cleveland will feature new Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, who will be playing in his second game since serving an 11-game suspension for sexual assault as defined by the NFL.

Cincinnati has recent familiarity and success against him. In one of his final games with the Houston Texans, Watson threw for 324 yards and three touchdowns, but lost 37-31 on Week 16 of the 2020 season.

If the Bengals can stop the Browns on Sunday, they will have their first victory over its intrastate rival since 2019, when the Bengals closed a dismal two-win season with a home victory over the Browns.

Some of Cincinnati’s best players, such as Chase and Burrow, are still looking for their first win against a Cleveland team that has posed more problems for the Bengals recently than any other team in the NFL.

“I’ve never beat them,” Chase said. “That’s not a good feeling.”