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NFL Preview - Cincinnati (2-1) at Cleveland (0-3)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - ManGenius, we hardly knew ye.
Just three short years after a prodigious NFL coaching debut - double-digit wins and a playoff berth with the perpetually luckless New York Jets - Eric Mangini's stock has tumbled precipitously.
Exiled from the Jersey swamps when a promising 8-3 start last season wound up a 9-7 debacle, it seemed Bill Belichick's ex-protege landed on his feet with a new gig in Cleveland.
Instead, according to reports, the Brown Mutiny seems imminent in the locker room.
And in the press, it seems it's already under way.
"I'm actually starting to believe that Mangini really was the worst head coach hire in 25 years," said columnist Joe Posnanski, in an "Inside the NFL" piece posted Tuesday on SI.com. "I cannot stand what Eric Mangini has done to the Browns, the team of my childhood.
"I cannot stand the lack of respect he has shown for the team's history, the Mickey Mouse game he plays with quarterbacks, the amazing knack he has for getting his players to not play hard for him or the stupid fines he hands out like he's Principal Vernon from 'The Breakfast Club.'
"Don't mess with the bull, young man, you'll get the horns."
On the field, his team hasn't fared much better.
A Week 1 home opener ended with a respectable enough 34-20 loss to Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings, but subsequent road defeats at Denver Broncos and Baltimore have seen the Browns muster just nine points while surrendering an ugly 61.
Outside of a Josh Cribbs punt return in the opener, in fact, Cleveland has visited the end zone just one time on offense - settling instead for five Phil Dawson field goals as its other scoring output.
Mangini officially began Phase I of the tinkering process this week, demoting Brady Quinn from his starting quarterback position in favor of Derek Anderson, who reached the Pro Bowl after a 2007 season with the Browns in which he passed for 3,787 yards and 29 touchdowns.
Quinn was pulled at halftime of the loss to the Ravens in Week 3.
"I'm not saying it's all Brady," Mangini said.
"Derek did some things that were positive and that's what it's based on."
Anderson's initial game-long test comes in the form of the intrastate rival Cincinnati Bengals, who ride into the Lake Erie region on, of all things, a winning streak.
Coach Marvin Lewis and Co. have strung together consecutive defeats of Green Bay and Pittsburgh in the last two weeks, recovering nicely from a kick-in- the-stomach debut in which Denver's Brandon Stokley caught a tipped pass and ran it in for an 87-yard touchdown with 11 seconds remaining.
It's the best start since a 3-0 opening in 2006 for the Bengals, who finished that year at 8-8 and stumbled to seven and four wins in the next two seasons - including an ugly 0-8 beginning last fall.
The Pittsburgh win saw suddenly-resilient Cincinnati rally from a 13-3 deficit at halftime and a 20-9 hole after three quarters. Cedric Benson scored on a 23-yard run with 9:14 left in the fourth, and Andre Caldwell's TD catch with 14 seconds left provided the decisive points.
"It's a great victory," Lewis said after Sunday's game, "but it won't matter if we don't continue to take care of business the next couple of weeks."
The Bengals lead the all-time series with the Browns, 36-35, including an unconventional home-and-home split of last year's series. The Browns were 20-12 winners at Paul Brown Stadium when the clubs met in Week 4, and the Bengals returned 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 8-4 against the Browns in his career, including 4-2 in games held in Cleveland. Mangini was 1-1 against both Lewis and the Bengals while at the helm of the Jets (2006-08), including a win in Week 6 of last season. Lewis and Mangini were both members of the Baltimore Ravens staff in 1996.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
Palmer will pilot a Bengals team seeking its fourth win in five games at Cleveland and its third straight against an AFC North foe. Since 2005, Palmer is third in the AFC and tied for fifth in the league with 93 touchdown passes. The last time he started a game at Cleveland - in September 2007 - he threw for a career-best six TDs. On the ground, first-year Bengal Benson has reinvented himself after a disappointing stint in Chicago, churning out 293 yards and scoring twice in three games. Since December of last year he leads the league with 575 yards on 129 carries, and he went for a personal-best 171 yards in his last meeting with the Browns. Also faring well against Cleveland has been wideout Chad Ochocinco, who's averaged 166 yards in his last two trips to Northeast Ohio. Lastly, wide receiver Caldwell's game-winning TD last week was the first scoring play of his career.
Two words - not good. The Browns have been gashed for 412 yards per game through three weeks and haven't exactly made up for it with opportunistic play, as a minus-7 turnover margin indicates. The 95 points they've allowed in three games is worst in the league by four and worst in the conference by nine, a factor not helped by the offense's second-worst-in-the-league 29 points. Among the few positives, however, are linebacker Kamerion Wimbley, who leads the unit with two sacks; and tackle Shaun Rogers, whose eight blocked field goals since 2004 are best in the league. No Browns player has recorded an interception this season. On special teams, lightning bug Cribbs is tied for the all-time franchise mark with seven return TDs - five on kickoffs, two on punts. Since 2005, the five kick returns tie him for first in the league with the Raiders' Justin Miller.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
Who knows, Anderson might be just the jolt a moribund offense needs. He's fared well in three career starts against Cincinnati, winning twice while tossing for eight touchdowns and an 82.9 passer rating. In relief duty last week, he completed 11-of-19 passes for 92 yards. Since 2007, veteran running back Jamal Lewis averages 144 rushing yards per game when he carries the ball at least 25 times - and in those games Cleveland is 5-0. In his career against Cincinnati, Lewis has averaged 113.7 yards per game and reached 100 yards nine times. Also in the backfield, Jerome Harrison posted 85 total yards last week, including 52 on the ground and 33 via pass receptions. On the outside, receiver Braylon Edwards has at least one catch in each of his 61 career games and has caught five TD passes in his last four meetings with the Bengals. And up front, chief protector/blocker Joe Thomas, a Pro Bowl selection last season, has started 35 straight games since entering the league in 2007.
Two wins or not, the numbers for the Bengals on defense are somewhat pedestrian. Cincinnati has allowed 328.7 yards per game through three and has a minus-2 turnover margin while scoring only five more points than it's allowed. One major superlative has been the menacing play of end Antwan Odom, who's racked up seven sacks in three weeks and needs just two more to exceed the personal-best of eight he established in 2007. The 6-foot-5, 280-pounder out of Alabama leads the league in the category. In the backfield, cornerback Johnathan Joseph recorded his - and the team's - first interception last week, running a 30-yarder back for a touchdown against Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers.
Benson figures to run hard and often against a leaky Browns defense that's allowed 5.4 yards per carry in three games. He's a slam-dunk starter. Ochocinco and his tradition of lighting up Cleveland must also be paid attention to. And with the Cleveland propensity to give the ball away - Anderson threw three picks in 19 attempts last week - the Bengals' defense should get a good hard look as well. For the Browns, Lewis would normally be a good option, but his status is in doubt due to a hamstring issue that kept him on the sidelines last week. If he plays, there's no telling how effective he'll be. Outside of him, maybe Edwards... but not much else.
Cincinnati's not yet good enough to be considered worthy of "trap game" status, but if the Bengals were that good... this would be one. They're coming off a huge emotional win over a defending world champion, and now they head out on the road against a winless foe with high-end coaching turmoil and a quarterback controversy. It's ideal recipe for a letdown and a breakthrough Browns win. Problem is... Cleveland might not be good enough to win any, regardless of scenario.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bengals 21, Browns 17
10/01 11:48:07 ET
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