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NFL Preview - Cincinnati (2-1) at Cleveland (0-3)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - For proof that there's a very fine line between success and failure in the National Football League, look no further than the two participants in this Sunday's AFC North clash from Cleveland Browns Stadium.
The Cincinnati Bengals enter their Week 4 battle with the in-state rival Browns off back-to-back victories, both of which exposed several chinks in the armor of the defending division champions. The team overcame an inability to score a touchdown in a hard-earned 15-10 triumph over 2009 playoff participant Baltimore, then put forth a largely unconvincing performance in last Sunday's 20-7 road verdict over the going-nowhere Carolina Panthers.
Cincinnati's offense has been inefficient and out of sync in both wins, with quarterback Carson Palmer's struggles particularly standing out. The one-time franchise signal-caller completed a subpar 48.6 percent of his passes over the two games, with the Bengals as a team managing to convert just 23 percent (8- for-35) of their third-down opportunities during that stretch.
Palmer finished a mediocre 19-of-37 for 195 yards and one touchdown against a non-threatening Carolina squad that had rookie Jimmy Clausen making his first career pro start under center. He was intercepted twice as well, with several other throws winding up in and out of the hands of Panther defenders.
The Bengals have still been able to prevail thanks to the work of a solid defense that's produced eight takeaways over the club's 2-1 start and the accurate leg of kicker Mike Nugent. Cincinnati picked off Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco four times in its Week 2 showdown with the Ravens, two of which helped Nugent boot a career-best five field goals on the afternoon.
That triumph was the eighth straight for the Bengals against fellow AFC North members, a streak dating back to the 2008 campaign. Cincinnati went 6-0 within the division a year ago en route to edging out the Ravens for first place.
Cleveland, on the other hand, has dropped nine of its last 10 games in divisional play and fell to 0-3 on the young season with last weekend's 24-17 setback at Baltimore. The Browns' three losses have been by a total of 12 points, and they've led in the second half in each of those contests.
The Browns claimed a 17-14 advantage early in the fourth quarter on the Ravens following a short touchdown pass from quarterback Seneca Wallace to tight end Benjamin Watson, but Baltimore scored on its next two possessions while stoning Cleveland's makeshift offense the rest of the way.
Despite its failure to close out the opposition once again, Cleveland did display some positive traits in its latest defeat. The Browns piled up 173 rushing yards on a well-regarded Baltimore defense, with top back Peyton Hillis churning out a personal-best 144 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. Wallace, subbing for an injured Jake Delhomme for a second straight week, hit on 18-of-24 pass attempts and did not commit a turnover.
Delhomme, sidelined with a high ankle sprain the veteran addition sustained in the Browns' season-opening loss at Tampa Bay, has been able to take some practice reps this week and hasn't been ruled out by head coach Eric Mangini. It's still more likely that Wallace will get the starting nod for Sunday's tilt, however.
The Bengals lead the all-time series with the Browns, 38-35, including a home- and-home sweep of last year's series. Cincinnati earned a 23-20 overtime win in Cleveland in Week 4, and took a 16-7 decision when the clubs met at Paul Brown Stadium in Week 12. The Browns last defeated the Bengals in 2008, coming up a 20-12 winner when the teams met in Cincinnati. The Bengals are 2-0 in Cleveland since last losing there in 2007.
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis is 10-4 against the Browns in his career. Mangini is 1-3 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 BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
Palmer's problems have been the most glaring, but he's not the only member of a Cincinnati offense that's yet to live up to its advance billing to underperform. Six-time Pro Bowler Terrell Owens (14 receptions), signed just prior to training camp to provide a dangerous complement to fellow wide receiver Chad Ochocinco (20 receptions, 237 yards, 1 TD), has made only a modest impact in his short time with the club, while running back Cedric Benson (202 rushing yards, 3 receptions, 3 total TD) is averaging a mere 3.1 yards per carry and has yet to eclipse the 100-yard plateau this year. The most reliable receivers have been a pair of rookies, slotman Jordan Shipley (13 receptions) and talented tight end Jermaine Gresham (13 receptions), who led the team with 59 yards on four catches last week. The Bengals were tough to beat when Benson got rolling last year, going 6-0 during the regular season when he rushed for over 100 yards, and with Palmer (707 passing yards, 3 TD, 3 INT) having been off the mark as of late, look for coordinator Bob Bratkowski to feed his backfield workhorse the football come Sunday.
After fielding one of the league's worst run defenses last season, the Browns have shown significant strides in that area through the early portion of this year. A revamped front seven headed by veteran linebackers Eric Barton (17 tackles) and Scott Fujita (18 tackles) and underrated end Robaire Smith (19 tackles) has limited the opposition to a respectable 3.8 yards per rush, and opponents have yet to score a touchdown on the ground against the unit. Cleveland hasn't been as effective in stopping the pass, though, and those shortcomings were exploited by the Ravens in last week's loss. Baltimore triggerman Joe Flacco threw for 262 yards and hit on over 70 percent of his throws while facing virtually no pressure throughout the day, while cornerback Eric Wright (13 tackles, 3 PD) was burned for three touchdowns by standout receiver Anquan Boldin. The Browns were without two of their best pass rushers, lineman Shaun Rogers and outside linebacker Marcus Benard (4 tackles, 2.5 sacks), due to ankle injuries, and their hopeful return this week will be welcomed by a secondary that's very young in key spots. Benard is expected to be available for Sunday's game, while Rogers' status is more uncertain.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
Regardless of who's playing quarterback, the Browns figure to rely heavily on the broad shoulders of Hillis (220 rushing yards, 3 TD) after last week's show-stopping effort against a Baltimore defense that usually gives up yards grudgingly. The converted fullback is averaging a healthy 5.6 yards per attempt thus far and is a fine receiver as well, as his team-best 14 catches will attest. Cleveland also wants to get the ball in the hands of playmaking wide receiver Josh Cribbs (10 receptions, 1 TD), who along with Watson (12 receptions) has developed a nice rapport with Wallace (370 passing yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) in the latter's two starts. The duo has combined for 241 yards and two scores on 17 grabs over the past couple of weeks as the top options of a receiving corps that's still very much a work in progress. Running back Jerome Harrison (85 rushing yards, 4 receptions), one of the key contributors to the Browns' four-game winning streak to close out 2009, appears ready to return from a thigh injury that kept him out last week, though he's merely a caddy to Hillis at this point.
Wallace (or possibly Delhomme) will try to penetrate a Cincinnati stop unit that leads the league in pass efficiency defense and has garnered five interceptions over the first three games. The Bengals field an excellent cornerback tandem in Leon Hall (12 tackles, 2 INT, 4 PD) and Johnathan Joseph (11 tackles), while controversial offseason addition Adam Jones (3 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PD) is an upper-tier nickel back when healthy and able to avoid trouble. Cincy's success against the pass is quite impressive, considering the team has mustered a league-low two sacks and generated little pressure on enemy quarterbacks in the early going. Ends Antwan Odom (3 tackles) and Jonathan Fanene, the Bengals' top two leaders in sacks from 2009, missed the Carolina game with a sprained wrist and torn hamstring, respectively, but Odom could be back on the field this week. An active group of linebackers featuring 10th-year pro Dhani Jones (23 tackles) in the middle and high draft choices Rey Maualuga (14 tackles) and Keith Rivers (15 tackles) outside will be in charge of keeping Hillis' gains to a minimum and continuing to come up with key stops like last Sunday, when the Bengals held the punchless Panthers to a 2- for-13 success rate on third and fourth downs.
On a team that contains such proven offensive performers as Benson, Ochocinco, Owens and Palmer, it's a startling sight to see Nugent as the Bengals' best fantasy player at the moment. The journeyman kicker is 8-for-8 in field goal tries, two of which have been beyond 50 yards, and is a must-start while he's this locked in. Coming off a two-touchdown game and with few threats to his workload, Benson should make a good choice as well, with Ochocinco the best alternative among a pretty deep group of Cincinnati receivers. Owens owners may want to explore other options, however, with the 36-year-old showing signs of decline and the passing game not firing on all cylinders. Hillis has put himself squarely on the fantasy radar with his early output, which includes a touchdown in three straight weeks, and Cribbs looks like a decent play at the flex position who gets a big bump in value in leagues that count return yardage. Neither Cleveland quarterback is worthy of consideration, and Palmer's an awfully risky pick off his recent results. For those seeking a bye-week fill-in at the tight end spot, both Cincinnati's Gresham and the Browns' Watson offer some potential.
These teams could be easily entering this matchup with reverse records had a few circumstances gone a bit differently, and the familiarity each has with one another should ensure a close and competitive game. If the Browns can run the football with the same authority they did last week and pressure Palmer into another shaky day, there's a strong chance of Mangini's boys coming away with that elusive first victory of 2010. On the other hand, the Bengals have a clear talent advantage on their rebuilding rival and are capable of making this a laugher if they finally manage to put it all together. Odds are that won't happen, but Cincinnati still should make enough plays to get past a Cleveland team that still needs to prove it knows how to win.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bengals 20, Browns 14
10/01 15:07:51 ET