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Browns and Bengals square off in AFC North battle
(Sports Network) - Earlier last week it looked as though the Cleveland Browns were already looking toward next season.
Guess the Cincinnati Bengals won't make the mistake of looking past their AFC North rivals.
The Browns will turn to Brian Hoyer again under center this Sunday at FirstEnergy Center when they look to deny the Bengals a third victory in a row.
It was a curious week for the Browns to say the least as they prepared for this past Sunday's meeting with the Minnesota Vikings. First, rookie head coach Rob Chudzinski bypassed his then No. 2 quarterback Jason Campbell on the depth chart in favor of Hoyer when starter Brandon Weeden was ruled out with a thumb injury.
Things then took an even crazier turn when Cleveland traded running back Trent Richardson -- the third overall pick of the 2012 draft -- to the Indianapolis Colts on Wednesday for a first-round selection in 2014.
But the white flag turned into a victory emblem when the Browns pulled out all the tricks to beat the Vikings 31-27. Hoyer threw for 321 yards and three touchdowns as Cleveland overcame three interceptions by the signal-caller in his second career start.
Cleveland had been held to just 16 points over its first two games of the season -- losses to Miami and Baltimore -- but secured Chudzinski's first win when Hoyer found tight end Jordan Cameron in the back of the end zone from seven yards out with 51 seconds to play.
"We have a really resilient group, and I think we showed that through the week. Everything went right today, and in the end we came out on top. A win is a win, and that is the important thing," said Hoyer.
Cameron caught three touchdown passes -- one from holder/punter Spencer Lanning on a fake field goal -- and wide receiver Josh Gordon returned from his two-game suspension to set career highs with 10 receptions and 146 yards with a TD catch.
"We're never going to quit. The guys in this room aren't that way; I'm not that way," Chudzinski said. "We'll continue to work, we have a game next week against Cincinnati, a divisional game that's an important game."
The Browns begin a three-game homestand against the Bengals, who are coming off their own outrageous 34-30 victory over the Green Bay Packers.
Facing one of the top offenses in football, the Bengals jumped out to a 14-0 lead, scoring a pair of rushing touchdowns in a span of 12 seconds thanks in part to a Green Bay muffed kickoff return.
However, Cincinnati turned the ball over four straight times and saw Green Bay explode for 30 straight points to grab control.
The Bengals then showed their own resiliency by rattling off the game's last 20 points, including 13 in the final quarter.
"It was a great win, and (we persevered) through as many negative plays I've seen in my life. At one point, I told (defensive coordinator Mike) Zimmer, 'When it rains, it pours.' We have to learn and take care of the football," said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis.
"That's one thing about this group -- they're going to work and stay after it. We learned some valuable lessons and survived one today that you don't survive very often."
The Bengals survived thanks to Terence Newman's 58-yard fumble recovery for the go-ahead touchdown with 3:47 to go, but even that play had some odd elements to it.
Green Bay was clinging to a three-point lead with less than five minutes to play and appeared to pick up a first down on 3rd-and-12 at the Cincinnati 29. A successful Bengals challenge pushed the ball back just shy of the marker and the Packers elected to go for the first down.
Rookie running back Johnathan Franklin, however, was stripped of the ball just as he reached the line of scrimmage. Cincinnati safety Reggie Nelson initially picked it up, but had it knocked away by Green Bay receiver Randall Cobb. Newman, though, was right there to scoop it up and he raced untouched to the end zone and then into the first row of fans.
"I'm definitely not a young man anymore, but I was so excited. I know they (Packers) are a big Lambeau Leap team, and I saw a bunch of fans up there so I just wanted to get up there and have some fun," said Newman.
Andy Dalton threw for 235 yards on 20-of-28 passing with two touchdowns and an interception for Cincinnati, which has won two straight at home after a season-opening loss at Chicago.
The Bengals, who opened last year 3-1 before suffering four straight losses, also had four sacks and intercepted Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers twice.
"We're a good football team. If we want to be a good team, we have to beat good teams. That's how you end up being a great team," Lewis added.
The Bengals lead the "Battle of Ohio" by a 42-37 margin, but are 16-23 in Cleveland. The clubs split their two meetings last year.
Lewis is 14-6 overall against Cleveland, while Chudzinski will try to snap a five-game losing streak by Browns rookie head coaches in their first game against the Bengals. Chris Palmer (1999), Butch Davis (2001), Romeo Crennel ('05), Eric Mangini ('09) and Pat Shurmur ('11) have all fallen in defeat versus Cincinnati, with Bill Belichick in 1991 the last to win his first meeting with the Bengals.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Browns showed last week that they can't be taken lightly, a mistake that Lewis will have to make sure his squad doesn't make this Sunday.
"I thought Cleveland had a very good football team a year ago, a better football team than their record," said Lewis. "They made some changes and are moving in a different direction. They've got another good football team. They've got a lot of good players. We know it's going to be a tough struggle up there, and we've got to have a good week, and a hard week of preparation in order to go up there and play."
Hoyer gets the start again this weekend looking to build off his first career win. He is aiming to become the first Browns player to record consecutive 300- yard passing games since Brian Sipe in 1980 and the first to win his first two starts with the franchise since Mark Rypien in 1994.
"Brian obviously was critical in that game (versus the Vikings). As I said before, I have confidence in all of those guys," said Chudzinski. "I expect that Brian will be ready for this game, as well, and I'm looking forward to it.
Chudzinski added on Wednesday in announcing Hoyer will start that Weeden is making progress and should begin throwing this week.
Like Weeden, Hoyer has found a comfort zone with Cameron, who leads the Browns with 20 catches, 269 receiving yards and four touchdowns. He needs four catches in this game to pass Ozzie Newsome for the most by a Cleveland tight end in the first four games of the season.
Hoyer will face a Bengals defense that is limping at the corner position, but was still able to have some success against Rodgers. Defensive backs Dre Kirkpatrick (hamstring) and Brandon Ghee (concussion) did not play versus the Packers and Leon Hall, who has five career interceptions versus the Browns, hurt his hamstring while blocking on Newman's fumble return.
Lewis said Hall's status for this game is "partly cloudy" and that Ghee is close to returning.
In response, the Bengals brought back a familiar face in veteran safety Chris Crocker, a former starter with the club from 2008-12. There is a chance that Crocker could play in this game given his knowledge of the Bengals' system.
"Here we go again," said Crocker.
"Not a whole lot has changed. If something ain't broke, don't fix it. That's kind of Zim's motto. His system has been in place for a while, so it's easier for a guy like me to come in and not have to learn a lot of things."
The Browns secondary should have their hands full with wide receiver A.J. Green, who has four career touchdowns in four games versus the Browns. That includes his first career two-TD game in the most recent encounter on Oct. 14 of last year.
Green is averaging 19.1 yards per catch versus the Browns and Dalton is 3-1 against them with 1.050 passing yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions.
"They have a solid offensive line, two very good runners that complement each other and they're loaded at the skill positions," Chudzinski said of the Bengals. "Everybody knows about A.J. Green and what kind of player he is, outstanding player. They have a good wide receiver group, and they play a lot with two tight ends, two very good tight ends in (TE Jermaine) Gresham and (TE Tyler) Eifert. So it will be a real challenge for our defense this week."
Cleveland did record six sacks versus Minnesota and are third in the NFL with 12. Defensive lineman Desmond Bryant has a sack in seven straight games dating back to last season with Oakland and had two in his Browns debut on Sept. 8.
Cleveland kicker Billy Cundiff was not available at the end of the Minnesota game due to a quadriceps injury and did not work out on Wednesday.
The Browns shocked the NFL nation last weekend by sticking together to win their first game of the season, but the emotion of being counted out before the game even began may not carry over as much this weekend.
The Bengals should arrive in Cleveland a very confident bunch and a veteran coach in Lewis should be able to keep his squad from looking past the Browns and to a home meeting with New England the following weekend.
The Browns have had historic success over the Bengals at home, but their early offensive struggles from the first two weeks could resurface this Sunday.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bengals 24, Browns 10
09/27 09:50:41 ET