BEREA: For better or worse, Browns rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer is on the verge of completing his initial AFC North crash course at 1 p.m. Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals.

It’ll be Kizer’s third divisional matchup in his first four NFL regular-season games. His baptism by fire has already included a 21-18 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers and a 24-10 defeat at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens. The second-round draft pick impressed against the Steelers but had an outing from hell against the Ravens.

Now, coming off a 31-28 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, the Toledo native will make his debut in the Battle of Ohio between the Browns (0-3) and Bengals (0-3) at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland.

Kizer believes he’ll benefit in the long run from his abrupt introduction to the division, which began in the regular-season opener against the AFC North champion Steelers (2-1).

“The grit and the toughness that comes in this division, when we play other divisions, it just gives us a different mentality,” said Kizer, who has completed 57-of-108 passes (52.8 percent) for 646 yards and three touchdowns with seven interceptions for a rating of 53.2. “That toughness that you have is what football is all about.

“When you are playing against three of the better defenses in the country twice a year, you are going to create a mindset that allows you to go elsewhere and dominate teams. Our ability right now to play against these guys and get these experiences are going to be things that motivate us and drive us to leave our division, leave our conference and go have success.”

If the Browns wanted to shield Kizer from this early gantlet, they could have kept veteran quarter­back Brock Osweiler and used him as a bridge to the Notre Dame product. But coach Hue Jackson decided Kizer was ready, and the Browns cut Osweiler before the season.

As long as the 21-year-old Kizer maintains his confidence and health, it’ll be difficult to second-guess the plan. Granted, those might be pretty big ifs.

“It really gives us an evaluation of where he is,” Jackson said of Kizer kicking off his career with an AFC North tour. “Hopefully, he’s going to be a quarterback here for a long time, so he’s learning the different schemes that he’s going to face in his career.

“You start to understand the players who you have to play against and the players you have to defeat. That’s a bonus if you can do it. So here it is. He is going to get an opportunity to play the third team in our division. He’ll have an idea of who they all are after this game.”

The Browns are obviously still getting to know Kizer, who’s experienced ups and downs so far.

Against the Bengals, Kizer must protect himself, especially with linebacker and habitual player-safety-rule violator Vontaze Burfict coming off a three-game suspension, as well as the ball, which he has turned over eight times in three games.

Per ESPN, Kizer has taken 33 hits this season, the most among any NFL quarterback. The Browns are lucky nothing other than a migraine against the Ravens (2-1) has sidelined him.

There have been some close calls. Indianapolis Colts rookie free safety Malik Hooker hit Kizer in the left knee this past weekend and received a roughing the passer penalty.

“I’m completely OK, completely healthy from it, but that is an opportunity for the officials in our league to continue to protect the quarterback,” Kizer said. “Malik and I are good friends off the field, so I know there were no harmful intentions on that.”

Kizer went 22-of-47 passing for 242 yards and two touchdowns with three interceptions for a rating of 50.1 against the Colts. Seven or eight dropped passes and four pass interference penalties by a weak receiving corps didn’t aid Kizer, who also ran for a touchdown and was sacked once after he took nine combined sacks in the first two games.

“[Kizer] had his best game [against the Colts], and I hope that he can continue that progress and give us a chance to be the offense that we can be,” left tackle Joe Thomas said. “I saw the way that he was throwing in rhythm. He was making quick, decisive decisions with the football, wasn’t taking as many sacks.

“You could see as the second half got on, he was getting confidence in understanding the route concepts, understanding the coverages, knowing where the ball needs to go on time. It seemed like a really big step for him. When the quarterback runs around and sacks himself, that’s a bad thing. So when he doesn’t do that, I know that’s improvement. It’s the baby steps.”

However, none of Kizer’s progress will be good enough until the Browns win.

“That is the quarterback’s job. You have to win games,” Jackson said. “But did he do some good things? Yes. Did he do some things that we have to continue improving on? Yes, he did.

“I’m not going to get too high or too low. I’m just going to keep coaching him through things and help him get better, but he did improve last week.”

If all goes well for Kizer, he’ll be much better when the Browns have rematches against the Bengals (Nov. 26), Ravens (Dec. 17) and Steelers (Dec. 31) later this season.

Nate Ulrich can be reached at nulrich@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/abj.sports.