Saturday, September 28, 2013

A two-game winning streak for Browns?

The Browns have had all sorts of problems with AFC North opponents since the resurrection in 1999, especially the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. That’s an historical fact.

They are just 7-22 against the Ravens and 5-24 against the Steelers. There is no such thing as home-field advantage when the Ravens and Steelers invade Cleveland. The Steelers are 11-3 there, one game better than the Ravens at 10-4.

But when it comes to the Cincinnati Bengals, the problems somehow are minimized and the victories become somewhat more plentiful. The Browns are a respectable (drawing a comparison here) 10-18 against Cincinnati, including a 6-8 record at what used to be called Cleveland Browns Stadium.

When the Bengals arrive in Cleveland this weekend, they’ll find themselves four-point favorites to end the Browns’ one-game winning streak. This despite the club’s mediocre success on the lakefront.

Now some of those Cleveland victories were accomplished when Cincinnati was known as the Bungles and the Browns matched them in extreme badness. However the Bengals haven’t been the Bungles for a couple of years. In some quarters around the National Football League, they are favored to win the division title.

But for some reason, the Browns play Cincinnati much tougher at home. Perhaps it’s a Battle of Ohio thing, sort of a prideful situation. Then again, the more logical conclusion is they match up better with Cincinnati’s personnel.

And Sunday’s battle will be no different.

Both teams have solid defenses, although you’ll have a tough time convincing Bengals fans of that after last Sunday’s 34-30 escape against Green Bay. After scoring the game’s first 14 points, the Cincy defense surrendered 30 straight points to the Packers before rallying to win the game.

The biggest difference between the two clubs is offense. Cincinnati has a good one; the Browns are struggling to find one.

The big question is whether the Bengals will look at this game as a relative breather after knocking off a solid Green Bay team last week and suffer a letdown. Football is a game loaded with emotion. Lack of it causes problems.

This one most likely will be won through the air since neither club has what you’d call a scary running game. The Bengals have rushed for just 272 yards, which looks outstanding next to the Browns’ 215.

Both clubs own aggressive defenses. Coordinators Ray Horton for Cleveland and Cincinnati’s Mike Zimmer are two of the best at making certain their players are in the proper frame of mind at the snap. Emotional preparation is paramount in their philosophy.

That’s why Brian Hoyer’s second start at quarterback for the Browns will be a terrific litmus test to see just where he is in his development. What he’ll face Sunday will make what he saw in last Sunday’s victory in Minnesota look like child’s play.

The Bengals’ front seven are among the best on the NFL. They are hurting is in the secondary, however, with three players labeled doubtful for the game, including their top cover corner Leon Hall and free safety Reggie Nelson.

Advantage Browns? That depends how effectively the offensive line can protect Hoyer and open holes for the Browns’ small cadre of running backs. If the running game continues to churn in mud, as it has done all season, then Hoyer had better dial up his quick release of the football before he takes a beating.

That quick release helped save him from at least three or four sacks last Sunday, a fate that more than likely would have befallen Brandon Weeden had he been in there. It would not be surprising to see offensive coordinator Norv Turner load the play-calling this week with quick-developing plays,

But with the Bengals’ secondary operating at less than peak efficiency, Turner might just load up the passing game as he did against Minnesota and hope to tire out the pass rush.

Look for the Bengals to load the box and force Hoyer to throw with Zimmer throwing in several blitz packages against the pass and run. No doubt he’ll try to confuse Hoyer with a variety of disguised looks.

They’ll try to win first and second down and force the Browns into third-down situations, where they have failed miserably this season.

The Browns’ defense, meanwhile, faces a tougher test against a Cincinnati offense that averages nearly 20 first downs and 350 yards a game, most of it (266 yards) through the air.

Andy Dalton, who struggled with his accuracy in his first two seasons, has completed two of every three passes this season. He has thrown only five scoring passes (three to Pro Bowler A. J. Green) and just three interceptions, but he has been able to keep the chains moving, especially on third down (18-of-39).

The biggest battle will be up front where the Cleveland defense puts its 12 sacks up against a Cincinnati offensive line that has allowed just five sacks. Whoever wins the battle in the trenches wins this game.

While the Bengals are hurting in the secondary, the Browns are short-handed at outside linebacker with Jabaal Sheard and Quentin Groves out. Top draft pick Barkevious Mingo gets his first start, but it’s questionable how much he can play.

In what could wind up as a war of attrition, this one will go down to the wire. Like last week in Minnesota, the team that has the ball last will be the winner. No fakes this week.

So how will it turn out?

Hoyer does it again in the final minute of the game. Trailing, 17-14, he leads a long drive that stalls at the Cincinnati 2 with 20 seconds left. A failed fade to Jordan Cameron in the end zone brings up a third and goal. The Browns line up with four wide receivers and Hoyer in shotgun formation in an empty backfield.

At the snap, Hoyer drops back one step as if to set up to pass and, like Christian Ponder for the Vikings last Sunday, bolts for the end zone on a quarterback draw and scores as the Browns even their season record to an improbable 2-2. Make it:

Browns 21, Bengals 17

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