Sunday's Battle of Ohio, if anybody still calls it that, isn't for a playoff spot or even Christmas time bragging rights. Neither fan base is especially proud this year.
The game isn't sold out, so it's blacked out in Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky -- and, with few exceptions, doesn't figure to garner much of a glance from the casual fan outside of Ohio.
But they will be watching in Tuscola, Texas, all 714 of them, as hometown hero Colt McCoy returns from injury to start for the Browns and try to spark the offense. The rookie is faced with a three-game trial, all within the AFC North Division, to pick up where he left off in late October and early November and again try to re-energize the offense and a fan base desperate for stability and success.
If you really want to evaluate a rookie QB who before last week had ever even seen snow once in his life, there's probably no better way to do it than having his coach's job, his own future and the shape of his team's draft plan hinging on his play, right?
All involved with the 5-8 Browns seem to hope McCoy can be The Guy they've been waiting for, that this three-game stretch will be a new beginning for a franchise that's spent 12 seasons searching for its franchise player at the game's most important position.
Things on the other side are a little different. Who knew that the first Browns-Bengals game, way back on the first weekend of October, would be the beginning of the end for these Bengals?
The Bengals haven't won since. They limp into this one at 2-11 after going 11-5 and impressively running the table in the division last year. This three-game stretch marks the end of an era in Cincinnati.
That's not to say with 100 percent certainty that Marvin Lewis, whose contract is set to expire, will definitely not be back. Or that Carson Palmer will be out, or that Chad and T.O. will soon be doing terrible TV on a full-time basis, or that more than half of a banged-up and disappointing defense will work elsewhere next summer. Final decisions on those matters probably aren't made and won't be for a while.
But much is going to change with the Bengals in the wake of this disaster. The fans not disguised as empty seats Sunday might be wearing bags on their heads. Lewis hasn't smiled since, when, August 15? T.O. won't catch passes over the middle, but will throw his owner, coaches and quarterback under the bus. Palmer acknowledged this week, two weeks before his 31st birthday, that "anything's possible." He's seen his play on film, too.
Palmer's 78.1 QB rating and 60.4 completion percentage are his lowest in a full season since 2004, his first as a starter. He's averaging a career-low 6.4 yards per completion, and though he's thrown 21 touchdowns, many have come in garbage time. He's been intercepted 18 times. The Steelers returned two of his three interceptions for touchdowns last week, extending the Bengals' losing streak and misery streak and furthering the speculation that the whole thing needs blowing up come spring.
If the Browns win Sunday and the hapless Panthers beat the pathetic Cardinals in Charlotte, the Bengals will have the inside track to the draft's top overall pick and its projected No. 1 pick, Andrew Luck. Even if the Bengals don't get to No. 1, they'll almost assuredly be in the top five. Knowing their longtime drafting strategy of taking the most talented available player regardless of position, past transgression or character issue, they might as well fill out a card for Cam Newton now and get it out of the way. Then Mike Brown could happily scratch markers from the 2011 budget.
If you don't have a quarterback in today's NFL, you don't have a chance.
McCoy was supposed to be the guy who spent his rookie year watching, like Palmer did in his, but circumstances thrust him into a tough spot. He handled it well, then managed a game the defense dominated in New Orleans and came back sharp to stun New England; yes, the same New England that's been bludgeoning everybody since. He was pretty good in a heartbreaking overtime loss to the Jets, then just OK (but gutsy) before suffering a high-ankle sprain in a tough-to-explain loss to what now seems to be a pretty good Jacksonville team.
He's back now, and he's back under the microscope. That's what a couple wins and a lot of hopeful people will do to a guy who, despite winning more games than other QB ever has in college, was a "take him because he's still there" pick in the third round last April.
Palmer was drafted No. 1 overall in 2003, taken for an immediate boost and long-term success. He started well, earned a huge new contract and was a big part of what's been a darn good seven-year stretch of football by Bengals standards. Sunday marks his 95th start. He's 0-2 in the playoffs, currently unsure of himself in the pocket and facing a very uncertain future. Nobody besides Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have enjoyed the kind of job security Palmer has. His backup is his younger brother, a guy who routinely helps second-string defensive backs make other team's rosters each August with his preseason performances. But that could change quickly. After this year, a lot is going to change.
Palmer has four years left on an expensive contract that includes $1 million roster bonuses each year until it tops out at a cost of $14 million in 2014. Nobody, especially Brown, the frugal Bengals owner/president/honcho, pays $14 million a year for a bunch of pick-sixes.
Well, almost nobody. The Panthers paid Jake Delhomme the balance of his $19 million in guaranteed money to leave last spring, then the Browns signed him, and started him, and now they're going back to McCoy. Because if you don't have a quarterback in today's NFL, you don't have a chance.
Sunday's game is very much about beginnings, and endings, and uncertain futures. As happens too often, both the Browns and Bengals are playing for next year.
Follow Zac Jackson on Twitter @FSOhioZJackson, and check out his reports on all of Cleveland's sports teams on http://www.foxsportsohio.com!