Thursday, November 24, 2011

More dyspepsia on the way

The last time the Browns and Bengals met, it was the first game of the 2011 season. Hopes were high, everyone was in first place and nearly everybody was healthy.

The Browns actually played well in that season opener at CBS. They took a 17-13 lead into the fourth quarter, and the Bengals were forced to play the second half of the game with their second-string quarterback.

Then it all came apart as the Browns collapsed, in large part due to their carelessness, foreshadowing what has turned out to be a very disappointing season that threatens to get even worse.

That was the game, you’ll recall, where the Bengals quick-snapped the Browns, whose dawdling defense was still huddling, and scored what turned out to be the winning touchdown late in a 27-17 victory.

With less than five minutes left in regulation, Bengals quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who had replaced injured rookie Andy Dalton in the second half, lobbed a 41-yard scoring strike into the hands of rookie wide receiver A.J. Green, all by his lonesome 20 yards downfield as the Browns scrambled to get back on defense.

“Every once in a while, you lose a game that makes you feel sick to your stomach,” Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita said after the game. “This is definitely one of those games.”

Two series later, Cedric Benson romped 39 yards for another Cincinnati score to add to the dyspepsia, launching the Bengals to what would be their best start under coach Marvin Lewis.

Eyebrows around the National Football League rose when the Bengals, benefitting from a five-game winning streak, surged to a 6-2 record at the midway point of the season. They have since been slapped back to reality after dropping a pair of AFC North games the last couple of weeks to Pittsburgh and Baltimore, who demonstrated they are still the class of the division.

But the Bengals remain a dangerous football team that can score and play good defense, while the Browns continue to struggle to find an identity. Two teams clearly heading in opposite directions.

Dalton is back under center for the Bengals. In fact, he returned for game two and has played with the poise of a veteran. And he’s certain to remember what happened the first time he faced the Browns.

The Browns blitzed him relentlessly in the first 30 minutes of that game, sacking him three times in his 18 dropbacks. Browns rookie defensive tackle Phil Taylor applied the coup de grace on the final play of the first half, damaging Dalton’s throwing wrist. That’s how Gradkowski entered the game.

Dalton, who played in a spread formation at Texas Christian, has adapted to the pro style quicker than expected and began paying dividends almost immediately. He completes nearly 60% of his passes, has thrown 15 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions, but has been sacked only 11 times since his pro debut.

He is blessed with a fine receiving corps led by Green, who missed last week’s loss in Baltimore with a hyperextended right knee while making a touchdown catch against Pittsburgh the week before. In Jerome Simpson, Andre Caldwell and tight end Jermaine Gresham, Dalton has three extremely reliable receivers unlike Cleveland’s Colt McCoy, who has to labor with the likes of Joshua Cribbs, Mo Massaquoi, Greg Little and Jordan Norwood.

Cincinnati’s well-balanced offense has produced 25 touchdowns in 10 games, compared to Cleveland’s paltry 14. The Bengals have scored 20 or more points in eight games; the Browns have done it just once.

The Bengals’ very active defense has produced 26 sacks with the line accounting for 21.5. In the first meeting, however, the Browns’ offensive line kept the Bengals’ defensive line in check. Cincinnati’s only two sacks were registered by safeties Reggie Nelson and Chris Crocker.

The Bengals are most vulnerable to the pass, surrendering 223 yards a game, but stingy against the running game, giving up just 89 yards a game. And they’ll been working at a disadvantage in the secondary Sunday.

Leon Hall, their best cornerback, went down with a torn Achilles’ tendon in the Baltimore loss and is done for the season. Second-year man Brandon Ghee replaces him and you can bet he’ll see plenty of action against the Browns.

The Bengals have been extremely opportunistic on defense this season, recovering 13 fumbles. They are very good at raking the ball.

One thing the Browns will try to avoid is the slow start, which has bugged them all season long. Not just at the beginning of the game, but the beginning of the second half as well.

As the television guys are more than happy to point out, the Browns have not scored a touchdown this season in the first and third quarters. It’s been strictly the Phil Dawson show.

Almost as a portent of things to come, the Browns got off to an awful start in the first Cincinnati game with six penalties, three rushing yards, 13 passing yards, two three-and-outs, one four-and-out and three punts in the first quarter. Ten plays netted 16 yards.

“A season full of mistakes in the first quarter,” lamented Pat Shurmur after the game. “No excuses. I don’t care if you’re a rookie, I don’t care if you’ve been in this thing for a 12 years. You can’t make mistakes.”

Then the Browns went on to nine more weeks of mistakes, but had the good fortune and talented right foot of Dawson to win four games against the dregs of the NFL. All of which means the Browns are that far removed from dreg status.

As for Sunday, there is no question the Bengals have the more talented team. It’s not even close even if Green doesn't play. They have no problem scoring and their defense is aggressive enough to cause McCoy and his guys problems.

They’re also coming into the game sporting a two-game losing streak and figure to arrive at Paul Brown Stadium in a nasty mood. All of which bodes ill for the Browns, especially in the first 15 minutes.

Taking into consideration the Bengals have won 11 of the last 14 games of the series, including five of the last six, it’s hard to find any reason to pick the Browns in this one.

There’s only one logical pick to consider. Make it:

Bengals 28, Browns 10

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