When the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns opened the season against each other, the Bengals needed a Bruce Gradkowski led comeback and a Browns defensive lapse to pull out a 27-17 win. Since that day, the respective fortunes for each team have taken a decidedly different turn. It was the Browns who were supposed to be the young upstarts challenging the Ravens and Steelers for divisional supremacy. Colt McCoy was supposed to be the emerging young quarterback leading his team to wins.
Instead, Cincinnati and Andy Dalton have seized that role while the Browns come into Sunday's game 4-6 desperately clinging to any hopes of saving their season. The Bengals have grown and improved as the season has gone on, but the Browns have changed as well over the past nine games.
Most striking, and for the Browns most concerning, has been the disappearance of Peyton Hillis. Whether it was the Madden Curse, a case of inflated ego, or actually hamstring problems, Hillis has been a non-factor for much of the season. Monterio Hardesty took over for Hillis midway through the season only suffer his own injury problems. Chris Ogbannnaya has been receiving the bulk of the carries over the past couple of weeks. In last week's victory against Jacksonville, he topped 100 yards and scored a touchdown. The Cincinnati defense shut down the Cleveland running game in week one. It will be a tall order for the Browns to improve on that this week.
That puts the pressure on Colt McCoy. Through all of the offensive struggles for the Browns this year, McCoy has remained consistent. He's completing nearly 60 per cent of his passes and has only been intercepted seven times. He also only has 11 touchdowns. He's been sacked 24 times as well by an underperforming offensive line struggling with their own injury issues and a lack of depth.
Much of McCoy's lack of productivity can be directly linked to a lack of a big play wide receiver. The team released Brian Robiskie three weeks ago and has inserted rookie first round pick Greg Little into that role. Little has yet to find the end zone. McCoy is still largely dependent on his tight ends, Benjamin Watson and Evan Moore (who scored both TDs against the Bengals) and the explosive Joshua Cribbs. For the Browns to be successful Sunday, someone besides these three will have to step forward and make plays.
The Browns' young defense continues to improve, however. Cleveland knocked Andy Dalton out of the game in the first half and kept the Bengals offense largely in check until Gradkowski's quick snap caught the Browns napping and AJ Green streaked 41 yards down the sideline for the go ahead score. That was Green's only catch on the day as cornerback Joe Haden had taken him out of the game. Green should be back Sunday, looking to win the rematch with Haden.
The Browns sacked Bengals QBs four times in the first game and still have a formidable pass rush. LB D'Qwell Jackson is a Pro Bowl candidate and leads a young defense that likes to pressure the quarterback. Their young defensive linemen, Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard are also disruptive forces up front.
The Browns rank fifth in the NFL in total defense, one spot ahead of the Bengals after Cincinnati's defense has given up major yardage in consecutive games against Pittsburgh and Baltimore. That ranking is largely due to their pass defense, however, as their rush defense ranks 29th in the NFL. Indeed, it was Cedric Benson wearing down the Browns in the fourth quarter that was the key to a Bengals victory in week one. Look for heavy doses of Benson and Bernard Scott on Sunday to exploit this weakness.
Sunday's game is huge for both teams. For the Browns, every week from here on out is a playoff game. One loss and any hopes they have for the post season are essentially over. For Cincinnati, despite the past two weeks' losses, they remain in the driver's seat in the Wild Card race. A win this week keeps them in that spot. Fans can expect another Bengals-Browns slugfest at Paul Brown Stadium.
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