CINCINNATI — The Browns and Bengals were playing for first place late in the 1986 season. Bernie Kosar set the tone on the first play, throwing a long completion to Reggie Langhorne at Riverfront Stadium.
Marty Schottenheimer’s team pulled away to a 34-3 victory that day. Sam Wyche’s Bengals couldn’t get anything going — not even with Boomer Esiason throwing to Cris Collinsworth — as the Browns dominated.
Why the history lesson?
That’s the last time Ohio’s two NFL teams played with first place at stake so late in a season.
The Bengals (5-2-1) are alone atop the AFC North, with everyone else right behind. The Browns (5-3) could move into a first-place tie with Pittsburgh (6-3) and show they’re ready to be taken seriously as a contender Thursday night at Paul Brown Stadium.
A victory would give the Browns a three-game winning streak, their best start since 1994, and a lot of credibility as an up-and-coming team.
“It’ll certainly be a good measuring stick because Cincinnati this year has been probably the best team in the AFC North,” left tackle Joe Thomas said. “If we want to win the AFC North, we’re going to have to beat Cincinnati, and this is our first opportunity.”
What about stage fright?
“If you’re at this point in your career, you’ve played on multiple national-stage games,” quarterback Brian Hoyer said. “Guys have been in Super Bowls, playoff games. This isn’t like the high school team playing on the weekly Friday night game on TV.”
The Bengals are trying to gain respect, too. The defending division champions have developed a reputation for playing well most of the time but falling apart in the biggest games. They’ve reached the playoffs each of the last three seasons and gone 0-3 in the postseason.
They had their first chance to make an impression during a Sunday night game in New England on Oct. 5 and got drubbed 43-17.
They get a chance to make a second impression Thursday night, this time at home.
“You love to have that type of atmosphere, especially at here at home in front of the whole nation,” defensive tackle Domata Peko said. “It gives us an opportunity to bounce back from our slip-up we had against the Patriots. It’s another prime-time game, and we’ll be ready to go.”