Friday, November 15, 2013

So close, yet . . . 

Winning one football game against a team in a season is hard enough in the National Football League. Winning two in the same season is another matter altogether.

That’s what the Browns must do Sunday in Cincinnati if they have any thoughts of post-season play dancing around in their heads. Beat the Bengals and all of a sudden, the AFC North race is a tossup with six games to go.

And don’t think for a minute the Bengals won’t have revenge on their minds. The 17-6 licking they suffered in week four in Cleveland still resonates. It arguably could be pointed out as the game that turned the 2013 season around for the Browns.

Why? Because they proved to themselves they could play not only representative and competitive football against one of the best teams in the NFL, they proved they could play winning football against that team.

In that first meeting, Brian Hoyer was the Cleveland quarterback, the defense made gigantic strides toward becoming one of the 10 best in the NFL and Jordan Cameron stepped into the spotlight with a brilliant 10-catch performance. The team played with an immense amount of confidence.

Hoyer, of course, is gone now, but Cameron and that defense are still around. Jason Campbell has more than capably filled in for Hoyer after Brandon Weeden, for the umpteenth time, failed to show he was NFL ready. And the confidence has returned with two straight strong performances against Kansas City and Baltimore.

The team they face Sunday is frustrated. Losing two games in a row in overtime can ramp up that frustration. The fact that first-place is slipping away in a season they were favored to win the division can play tricks on the mind.

Coming off back-to-back three-interception games, quarterback Andy Dalton’s confidence can’t be very high. The AFC’s player of the month in October threw 104 passes for 612 yards and was sacked 10 times in losses to Miami and Baltimore. That’s way too many passes for an offense that prides itself on being balanced.

The only positive right now for the Bengals is that the game is at home, where they are unbeaten this season. Pair that with the Browns’ inability to win on the road and it’s easy to see why the Bengals are favored by six points (take the points).

Counting this season, during which they’ve won only once (Minnesota) on the road, the Browns are 5-23 away from home since 2010. Stretch that back to 2008 and the road record plunges to 8-36.

The last time the Browns swept the season series against Cincinnati was in 2002, whey they finished 9-7 (6-2 on the road) in Butch Davis’ second season as coach. That was the club’s only winning season on the road since the resurrection.

For whatever reason, the Browns seem intimidated when playing in front of unfriendly folks. That’s one obstacle Rob Chudzinski must hurdle if the Browns are serious about becoming relevant this season.

He can use this game as a challenge to his men. Prove you can go into another team’s home and make it seem like your home. The best way to do that is to take the crowd out of the game. Easier said than done, of course. But the confident way the Browns’ three units have played recently proved it can be done.

Holding a very good Cincinnati offense to just two field goals in the first meeting is a good base on which to build that confidence.

Coming off a bye week as the Browns are can’t hurt. Or can it? The off week gives all the wounds, major and minor, some time to heal. Getting an extra few days off sometimes helps recharge the batteries. And yet, the Browns have proved mediocre after the bye week.

They are 5-7 after a week off, including a 2-6 mark on the road. One of those victories was in 2002 – at Cincinnati. So if you’re a history-repeats-itself- theorist, have some fun. This is your game.

With regard to the matchups, the Browns are most vulnerable covering tight ends in pass coverage this season and Dalton likes to throw to his tight ends. Jermaine Gresham is back after missing one game with a groin injury and will team with Tyler Eifert to put pressure on the Cleveland secondary.

That group also will get enough work with A. J. Green again getting a major portion of Dalton’s attention. In the first meeting with the Browns, he targeted Green 15 times, connecting on seven for just 51 yards, thanks in large part to solid coverage by Joe Haden.

In the last two losses, Dalton has thrown to Green an astounding 34 times with 19 completions, 279 yards and one lucky touchdown last week against Baltimore. Haden can expect more of the same Sunday.

But the Bengal who most likely will produce the largest headache for defensive coordinator Ray Horton and his staff is rookie Giovani Bernard, the little scatback from North Carolina. He has become offensive coordinator Jay Gruden’s favorite back, increasing his touches every week.

Bernard has run the ball 95 times and caught 38 passes for 723 yards and seven touchdowns. That’s a per-touch average of 5.44 yards. He will clearly be the most dangerous Bengal on the field on offense because he can beat you in many different ways.

He has wonderful vision that enables him to see and then scoot through cutback lanes. If the Browns’ linebackers do not exercise gap integrity and overrun plays, Bernard definitely will take advantage. The backers must stretch him wide and seal off the cutback lanes.

On defense, the Bengals are hurting with tackle Geno Atkins, their best player, out for the season; cornerback Leon Hall is also done for the season with an Achilles’ injury; and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga is recovering slowly from a knee injury.

Don’t underestimate the loss of Atkins, who some believe is the best defensive tackle in the league. He was equally adept at stuffing the run and rushing the quarterback with six sacks in nine games.

Maualuga’s injury is tempered by the play of Vincent Rey, who stepped right in and played extremely well in the Baltimore loss, leading the team with 15 tackles. Look for a lot of Rey, outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict and smallish defensive end Wallace Gilberry in or very near the Cleveland backfield.

Also look for the Browns to attack the Bengals’ offense with quick developing plays with Cameron and Josh Gordon in Campbell’s crosshairs. And if Greg Little can replicate the feistiness and athletic ability he showed in the Baltimore victory, it would place that much more pressure on the Bengals’ secondary.

Trench warfare could very well be the decisive factor in this one. Both offensive lines are just average, while both teams have very active and productive defensive lines and linebackers. The team that wins those battles wins the game. It’s that simple.

The big question is whether the Browns will be rusty after taking off last week or will the rest rejuvenate them with all batteries charged? The Bengals, meanwhile,  head into their bye week after this game and certainly don’t want to do so on a down note, holding just a half game lead in the division.

It will be hard fought, well played and tightly contested. Neither team is going to run away and hide. It will come down the final five minutes. Whoever has the ball with that amount of time left wins the game.

That team will be Bengals, who will overcome a six-point deficit with a 72-yard drive that ends in the final 30 seconds as Dalton executes a perfect naked reverse from the 2-yard line while the Browns concentrate on stopping Bernard and Green on a third-and-goal. Mike Nugent kicks the game-winning extra point. Make it:

Bengals 21, Browns 20

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