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NFL Preview - Cleveland (7-3) at Cincinnati (1-9)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Just when the Cincinnati Bengals were making believers out of doubters, they lay an egg against one of the worst teams in the NFL. The Bengals hope to inch closer to a division title and erase the horrid memories of last week's loss at Oakland by taking their frustrations out on the AFC North-rival Cleveland Browns this Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
The Bengals had a perfect chance to distance themselves in the division standings after both Pittsburgh and Baltimore lost on Sunday, but a 20-17 setback against the Raiders at the Coliseum kept them just a game ahead of the Steelers in the AFC North. Cincinnati has beaten both Pittsburgh and Baltimore twice this season and owns a 5-0 mark in the division, but either team still has a chance of trumping the Bengals for division dominance by win total.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis was wary of how rookie running back Bernard Scott would do in place of the injured Cedric Benson, but the pessimism vanished rapidly after Scott ran for a season-high 119 yards on 21 carries. With Benson still nursing an injured hip and questionable for Sunday, the game plan will stay the same: pound the football to set up quarterback Carson Palmer and the aerial attack.
The Bengals, who had a three-game winning streak stopped, haven't won a division title since 2005, and their previous first-place finish before that was back in 1990 under head coach Sam Wyche.
Much like Lewis, Wyche wouldn't have been happy either with Cincinnati wide receiver/return man Andre Caldwell, who was stripped of the ball on a kickoff after the Raiders tied the game on Bruce Gradkowski's 29-yard touchdown pass to Louis Murphy with 33 seconds left. Brandon Myers then forced a Caldwell fumble on the ensuing kickoff and recovered to help set up Sebastian Janikowski's game-winning 33-yard field goal with 15 seconds remaining.
After jumping out to a 14-0 lead, the Bengals watched Oakland score 20 of the next 23 points to pull away from the grips of defeat. The loss not only kept Pittsburgh within striking distance of Cincinnati, but it could have an effect on playoff aspirations and AFC seedings.
Cincinnati turned the ball over four times in what was supposed to be the opener of an easy stretch of games. Instead, it lost to the Raiders and now has the lowly Browns and Lions on the upcoming schedule to try to beat up on.
Cleveland, however, will not go down easy, if last week's shootout loss to Detroit has any bearing on the prediction. The Browns dropped a gut-wrenching 38-37 decision to the Lions last Sunday at Ford Field, losing for fifth straight time and falling to 1-9 on the season.
Brady Quinn had the Browns off and running with a franchise-record 24 points in the first quarter, before complacency set in and the defense couldn't hold the lead. Quinn fired touchdown passes to three different receivers in the opening frame and finished with 304 yards and four touchdowns on 21-of-33 passing for a 133.1 rating. He surpassed his previous career total for scoring passes in a game, and had the performance the franchise was finally waiting to see when they drafted the former Notre Dame star in 2007. Quinn and Derek Anderson have been interchanged as starters this season, but now maybe head coach Eric Mangini will stick with the hot hand and younger quarterback.
Mangini has been under fire after some players have reportedly lost interest in playing for the Bill Belichick disciple. It was even rumored this week that former Packers and Seahawks head coach Mike Holmgren may be interested in a position with the Browns. Either way, the Browns are still a franchise in disarray and in desperate need of a facelift. There is plenty of young talent on this team, which scored four touchdowns on Sunday after tallying five offensive TD's in the first nine games. The Browns likely won't have as nearly a productive afternoon this week, but the confidence level is at its highest.
The Bengals lead the all-time series with the Browns, 37-35, including a 23-20 overtime win in Cleveland in Week 4. The teams embarked on an unconventional home-and-home split of last year's series, with the Browns coming up 20-12 winners at Paul Brown Stadium when the clubs met in Week 4, and the Bengals returning the favor with a 14-0 triumph in Cleveland during Week 16. The teams embarked on a conventional home-and-home split in 2007.
Lewis is 9-4 against the Browns in his career. Mangini is 1-2 against both Lewis and the Bengals, including 1-1 while at the helm of the Jets (2006-08). Lewis and Mangini were both members of the Baltimore Ravens staff in 1996.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
Quinn (812 passing yards, 5 TD, 5 INT) posted a passer rating of 133.1 against the Lions, one week after his rating was 23.5 in a loss to Baltimore. The chiseled quarterback was able to get everyone involved on Sunday, but the offense ran out of gas towards the end of the game. Quinn's career high in passing yards, rating and touchdown passes are now in the past as he prepares for his first career start against Cincinnati. Quinn entered last week's game in Detroit with three touchdown passes in three seasons. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll will have to devise a similar aerial assault he unveiled on Sunday, since the Bengals are one of the toughest teams to run against. Cleveland racked up 439 yards of offense last week, including five catches for 115 yards and a score from wideout Mohamed Massaquoi (25 receptions, 1 TD), who leads the team in receptions and receiving yards (473). Mike Furrey is second on the team with 22 catches. Joshua Cribbs, Chansi Stuckey and Michael Gaines each had a touchdown catch in the Motor City for a Cleveland team ranked 31st in passing.
The Bengals are hoping their floundering performance against the Raiders was just an aberration, as they allowed Gradkowski to fire a pair of touchdown passes in his first start of the season. Quinn is young and fresh as well, but a bit more seasoned than Gradkowski this year. Cincinnati must get to the quarterback often and not let the Browns set the tempo early. While Palmer was sacked three times last week, the Bengals failed to record one. Since a loss to the Texans last month, defensive end Jonathan Fanene (20 tackles, 5 sacks) has posted 3 1/2 sacks after coming into the season with one in five career starts. He admitted after the loss to the Raiders that the team needs to stop the run and get to the quarterback, while also working hard this week to help clean up the mistakes. Fellow end Robert Geathers (25 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and tackles Domata Peko (22 tackles) and Tank Johnson (15 tackles, 1 sack) have to perform better on Sunday to keep the Bengals atop the AFC North. In other team news, the Bengals signed free-agent defensive tackle Orien Harris this week.
Aging Browns running back Jamal Lewis (460 rushing yards) is still searching for his first rushing touchdown of the season, and posted 75 yards on 24 carries against the Lions. The Browns rushed for 131 yards last week and are 22nd in that category this season. As stated earlier, Cleveland will most likely try to set up the pass first this week, since Cincinnati is second behind Pittsburgh for the best run defense in the league. Offensive lineman Rex Hadnot shook off a knee injury during the week to participate in Detroit, and should be ready to go at full strength on Sunday. Backup running back Jerome Harrison (254 yards) hasn't played in two games, but is not expected to have a huge role anyway. He did record 121 yards on 29 carries in the first meeting with the Bengals, because Lewis did not play.
Cincinnati has an underrated group of linebackers led by leading tackler Dhani Jones (68 tackles, 2 sacks), who has been the leader of this stop unit the past few years. Brandon Johnson (40 tackles, 1.5 sacks) has done a fine job filling in for injured starting weakside linebacker Keith Rivers (43 tackles), who is still nursing a calf injury and is questionable for this week. Strongside linebacker Rey Maualuga (42 tackles, 1 sack) finished second behind Jones with six stops in Oakland. The active trio should have an easy day with the aging Jamal Lewis running the football for the Browns. Cincinnati's secondary hopes that Quinn doesn't have another offensive explosion when he lines up under center. Top corners Leon Hall (48 tackles, 4 INT) and Johnathan Joseph (41 tackles, 5 INT) will certainly not be intimidated by Cleveland's pass catchers, but failure to prepare can lead into an ugly afternoon for the favored Bengals. Big-hitting safeties Chinedum Ndukwe (46 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and Chris Crocker (45 tackles, 2 INT) have helped the Bengals post 10 interceptions in the last six games.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
Palmer (2,217 passing yards, 14 TD, 8 INT) hasn't thrown a touchdown pass the last two weeks, but Sunday's effort had to sting the most since it came during a loss to the hapless Raiders. Palmer threw for just 207 yards and was picked off for the first time since a loss versus Houston on October 18. The former Heisman Trophy winner said after the game that Cincinnati's poor effort to make plays caused the team to suffer a tough loss. Palmer has enjoyed success against the Browns, having thrown a touchdown pass in each of the nine career meetings in this series. He is 7-2 over that time and owns 22 scoring passes with 14 interceptions in his career against Cleveland. The Bengals had 171 yards through the air last week and are 20th in passing this season. Flamboyant wideout Chad Ochocinco (50 receptions, 735 yards, 5 TD) ended with 67 yards on only four catches. He hasn't seen the end zone in the last three games. Laveranues Coles (29 receptions, 3 TD) and Caldwell (36 receptions, 3 TD) combined for five receptions against the Raiders.
The Browns are near the bottom in the league in pass defense, as evidenced by the 416 yards they allowed to the Lions through the air. Detroit rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford scorched the Cleveland secondary for 422 yards and five touchdowns, but was also picked off by free safety Brodney Pool (48 tackles, 4 INT) and cornerback Eric Wright (33 tackles, 2 INT). Mangini was particularly happy with the play of nickel back Mike Adams (31 tackles), who garnered praise with his ability to freelance within the secondary. Strong safety and Browns leading tackler Abram Elam (63 tackles) led Cleveland in stops last week. He'll be busy again with Cincinnati's flurry of pass catchers in Ochocinco, Caldwell and Coles. Pool picked off Palmer in Cleveland's 23-20 overtime loss on October 4 of this season, while Ochocinco hauled in three passes for 24 yards and a pair of touchdown receptions. Reserve corner Hank Poteat (15 tackles) looks to redeem himself for a pass interference call that helped set up Detroit's late touchdown pass to Brandon Pettigrew and Jason Hanson's game-winning PAT kick.
Palmer is not the most mobile quarterback in the game. In fact, he was sacked three times last week and six in the last three games. But since the passing game was put on pause and the ground attack was eerily stuffed in Oakland, Palmer became the first Bengals quarterback to run for two touchdowns in a game since Jack Thompson in 1979. While Benson (859 rushing yards, 6 TD) was sidelined with a hip problem, Scott (214 rushing yards) rushed for a season- high 119 yards on 21 carries. Brian Leonard (66 rushing yards) chipped in 36 yards on 13 touches, while Larry Johnson made his Bengals debut with two carries for five yards. Johnson may see more of an expanded role on Sunday if Benson is hampered again. Benson needs only 141 yards for the first 1,000-yard season of his career and according to Lewis, will assume a hefty workload despite not practicing. The Bengals are ninth in rushing this season and will try to set up that option early and often this weekend. After two straight big divisional wins over Baltimore and Pittsburgh the last two weeks, the Bengals suffered a major letdown in Oakland and hope that doesn't happen again. Left guard Evan Mathis (ankle) may see action this week after missing the Oakland game.
Benson had 74 yards on 18 carries in the first meeting with the Browns, but may not be at full strength when the rivalry resumes on Sunday. Either way, Cleveland is coming off a strong performance against the run, as it held Lions running back Kevin Smith to 45 yards on 12 carries. Newcomer and linebacker Jason Trusnik (29 tackles) has been thrust into the limelight because of injuries to Eric Barton and D'Qwell Jackson, and owns two sacks since coming over from the New York Jets in the midseason deal that sent wide receiver Braylon Edwards to the Big Apple. Linebackers David Bowens (48 tackles, 3.5 sacks) and Kamerion Wimbley (48 tackles, 5 sacks) combined for 10 stops against the Lions. Cleveland's 3-4 defense will face a tough challenge up front against the Bengals' stingy offensive line. Defensive ends Robaire Smith (41 tackles, 1 sack) and Kenyon Coleman (31 tackles, 1.5 sacks) can make it easier on the secondary if they can harass Palmer, while veteran nose guard Shaun Rogers (32 tackles, 1 sack) will be relied on to collapse the pocket and clog running lanes for whomever runs the ball for Cincy.
Not too many fantasy owners can rely on players from the Browns, but last week's startling offensive explosion may get a few candidates to make room for a few. Quinn, Massaquoi and kicker Phil Dawson are practical starts for Sunday, while Jamal Lewis remains iffy every week. He has been killing owners by failing to reach the end zone this season. The Bengals, meanwhile, have the usual suspects in Palmer, Ochocinco, the defense and kicker Shayne Graham. Give Scott a nod too, since Benson is listed as questionable for Sunday. Larry Johnson wasn't even a factor as a full-time starter in Kansas City, and things are no different with his new team. Coles could be a deciding factor for those looking for an emergency wideout to plug in.
The Bengals are inching closer to a division title and need to win Sunday to finish undefeated against the AFC North for the first time in franchise history. They are 5-0 against division foes in 2009 and have never won their first six games versus AFC North members in any season. Palmer will make sure that happens on Sunday, especially after chastising himself and the team for their poor effort against a Raiders team they should have beaten. Palmer, who labeled Sunday's game as a "must win", is due for a big passing performance and hasn't recorded 300 or more yards through the air since the 2007 campaign. With Pittsburgh and Baltimore set to battle each other this weekend, Cincinnati will come out on top versus Cleveland thanks to Palmer and a big defensive effort in order to maintain division supremacy.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bengals 31, Browns 20
11/25 18:44:34 ET