Same time this year
It was exactly one year tonight (Thursday) that the Browns traveled to Cincinnati to play the Bengals in front of a national television audience.
Three hundred and sixty-four days ago, they marched into Paul Brown Stadium and spanked the Bengals, 24-3, in such a dominant fashion, the National Football League gained new respect for a franchise that had floundered since coming back in 1999.
The victory lifted the Browns to 6-3 that night as they and their fans enjoyed the rarefied air of first place in the AFC North.
They didn’t know it at the time, but that was the pinnacle of the 2014 season. The Browns won just one more game to finish 7-9, beginning a slide that has seen them win only three of their last 15 games.
And when these two teams meet Thursday night – again in week nine of the season, again in Cincinnati and again on national television – don’t for a moment think the Bengals will forget that night last year when the Browns humiliated them.
Most players have long memories when it comes to results of heated rivalries. And you can almost count on Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, now in his 13th season at the helm in Cincy, to remind them just in case some of them have long-term memory issues.
The Bengals gained a huge and embarrassing measure of retribution when they rambled into Cleveland several weeks later and hung a 30-0 haymaker on the Browns in Johnny Manziel’s debut as a starting quarterback. More on that later.
The sweetness of that big Browns victory in week nine last season has evaporated, but it proved, at least in the short term, that version of the Browns was capable of having games like that. Sustaining it, however, proved much more difficult.
On that night 52 weeks ago, the star of the game was the Cleveland defense. It made a pretty good Bengals offense look like a high school team. The Browns had the correct answer to every Bengals move on that side of the ball.
They held that offense to just 165 total yards, 79 through the air, as Andy Dalton completed only 10 of 33 passes and was picked thrice. Buster Skrine had two of the thefts and Craig Robertson intercepted Dalton’s second pass of the game to set the tone for the evening. Ben Tate scored a few plays later.
The Bengals’ longest drive of the evening covered only 46 yards and ended with an interception. Of their 14 possessions, three ended in interceptions, one in a fumble, eight in punts, a field goal and the end of the game. They recorded only 11 first downs.
On offense, the Browns, if nothing else, were efficient. Brian Hoyer threw for 198 yards and no picks, but it was the ground game that enabled him to easily manage the game. Tate, Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell pounded out 170 yards and all three touchdowns.
To give you some idea of how spectacular that last stat is, the Browns entered the game having produced just 158 yards on the ground in the previous three games combined.
The decisiveness of the victory, which snapped a streak of 17 straight division losses on the road, can be easily found in other statistics. Such as the Browns owning the ball for 36 of the 60 minutes, stifling the Bengals on third down (3 of 17) and a 4-1 advantage in the turnover ratio.
Following the game, Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden, feeling extraordinarily confident, ebulliently ecalred, “This is a little different Browns team than the rest of the league is used to seeing.”
Haden, who shut down Bengals Pro Bowl wide receiver A. J. Green with three catches (in 10 targets) for 23 yards, had no idea what loomed ahead.
The stunning, where-did-that-come-from performance suddenly also made believers out of many skeptics in the league’s media community. But that did not last long.
It all came crashing down when the Bengals, who eventually finished second to Pittsburgh in the AFC North, visited Cleveland on Dec. 14. No national television audience this time. Just rabid Cleveland fans looking for a season sweep.
Instead, they were subjected to one of the most embarrassing beatdowns in team history. The Bengals flipped the script and manhandled the Browns in a game that looked like the men against the boys.
The Bengals made the Browns look much worse than they looked that Thursday night in early October. And it didn’t take much because Manziel, clearly not ready for prime time, looked as bad as a quarterback can look on his worst day. Maybe worse.
Statistics of that daytime nightmare speak volumes. Manziel was 10-of-18 for 80 yards, was sacked three times, pounded numerous times after delivering the ball while running for his life, and was one of 10 on third down.
The Browns’ nine possessions produced seven three-and-outs, which spawned a like number of Spencer Lanning punts. The offense did not cross its 30-yard line on the first four drives and reached midfield once when Manziel hooked up with Josh Gordon on a 32-yard pass.
It crossed into Cincinnati territory just once, a 10-play, 51-yard drive to the Bengals’ 19-yard line that ended late in the second quarter when Adam Jones picked Manziel in the end zone.
Another statistical perspective: The Bengals ran 45 plays on the ground; the Browns ran 38 plays . . . total. Cincinnati had the ball for 39 minutes.
So here we are once again in a brand new season. Same time on the schedule as last season to resume a rivalry that shows Cincinnati with a 44-39 lead in a series that began in 1970.
This time, though, the two teams are headed in opposite directions. Last season, they battled for the division lead at this juncture. This season, the Bengals are unbeaten in seven games; the Browns stand at 2-6, having lost the last three.
So can we expect a repeat of last season’s upset in Cincinnati from the Browns? The only difference this season is Manziel starts at quarterback with Josh McCown nursing painful rib injuries. They must be painful, otherwise he would start. If the game were Sunday instead of Thursday, he probably would start.
So again, what can we expect? Manziel can’t be as bad as he was against the Bengals last season, can he? He has a starting victory already, having helped knock off Tennessee in the second game of the season.
“I think a lot of ground has been covered,” coach Mike Pettine said of Manziel’s progress this season. “I think he’s a different player.” We’ll find out soon enough.
The Browns enter the game somewhat crippled at key spots, all with concussions. The defense will be without with Haden and Donte Whitner, and the offense without Brian Hartline and Andrew Hawkins, all of which makes the task at hand that much tougher.
Oddsmakers don’t believe there will be a repeat of last season’s Cincinnati upset. They have made the Bengals 11-point favorites, an unusually high number, especially in the NFL.
They got it right, though. The 2014 game a year ago will seem like an aberration when the NFL Network cameras shut in down for the evening. This one will not be close, but at least Manziel will somehow manage to get into the end zone once this time.
Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard spark a return of the 150-yard plus game for the Cleveland run defense, Dalton takes advantage of Haden’s absence and hits Green for two scores and the Cincinnati defense smothers the Cleveland ground game yet again. Make it:
Bengals 38, Browns 7