Saturday, December 5, 2015

On any given Sunday

The last time the Browns and Cincinnati Bengals played a football game, it was in front of a national television audience that saw first-hand what Cleveland fans had sadly endured for most of the 2015 season up to that point.

It was nearly five weeks ago on a Thursday night as the unbeaten Bengals spanked their intra-state rivals, 31-10, in a game that really wasn’t that close. The game also featured the season starting debut of Johnny Manziel at quarterback for the Browns.

When the teams meet again Sunday in Cleveland, the no-longer-unbeaten Bengals are comfortably on top of the AFC North, the Browns are comfortably at the bottom of the division, their losing streak is at six games and Manziel will be a spectator.

In that Nov. 1 game, the Browns were in the game from a scoreboard standpoint, trailing by just four points (14-10) at the intermission. And then, because the National Football League said they had to, they played the second half.

The first three of four second-half possessions resulted in three-and-outs for the Cleveland offense against a suffocating Cincinnati defense. The fourth, which began at the Bengals’ 37-yard line after a blocked punt, ended on downs at the Cincinnati 12 in the waning moments.

Those 30 minutes of sleep-inducing football produced two first downs and 18 total net yards with drives that gained six yards, minus 13 yards (thanks to two sacks), zero yards and 25 yards. It was the epitome of embarrassingly awful football.

Suffice it to say, Browns fans won’t see a repeat of that second half on Sunday. Why not? It’s almost incomprehensible a team can play that badly again, and not because Manziel will watch Austin Davis quarterbacking the Browns.

In actuality, the Browns play decent football at home against the Bengals, having won seven of the 16 meetings there since the return in 1999. Last season’s 30-0 thrashing, retribution for the Browns’ stunning 24-3 victory in Cincinnati earlier in the season, was an anomaly.

Even though they are headed in opposite directions, the games these teams play against each other are usually a lot closer, which makes Sunday’s affair that much harder to predict.

Statistics overwhelmingly favor the Bengals, whose goal this season is to avoid early elimination in the playoffs, something that haven’t been able to do since Andy Dalton became the starting quarterback as a rookie in 2011.

The Browns, on the other hand, are just looking to play a representative, competitive football game in all facets, something they haven’t done since beginning last season at 7-4. That the Bengals have outscored the Browns, 61-10, in the last two games is not indicative of what we’ll likely see Sunday.

What fans probably won’t see is Dalton hooking up again with tight end Tyler Eifert for three touchdowns as he did in that Nov. 1 game. Eifert, who has scored 12 times this season, is doubtful with a stinger (pinched neck nerve) suffered last Sunday. Rookie Tyler Kroft is expected to start if Eifert can’t make it.

All of which means Dalton probably will rely more on a solid ground game with grinder Jeremy Hill and elusive Giovani Bernard running behind a solid offensive line. Hill pounds out the tough yards while Bernard, dangerous in the run game and pass game, is a big-play weapon.

When he wants to go to the air, Dalton has the luxury of throwing to one of the best wide receivers in the league in A. J. Green, who checks in with 909 yards and six touchdowns, and Marlon Brown, 540 yards and three touchdowns.

Expect them and Mohamed Sanu, whose 25-yard touchdown on a reverse totally baffled the Cleveland defense in the first game, to run free most of the afternoon against a Cleveland secondary minus cornerback Joe Haden, who has missed the last three games with a concussion.

Dalton, seemingly getting better every season, is headed toward a career year. He is completing a career-best 65.7% of his passes, has thrown a career-low six interceptions and is on pace to rack up 4,300 yards and 33 touchdowns.

The opportunistic and very active Bengals’ defense, meanwhile, has allowed a league-low 193 points. The front seven is equally adept at stopping the run and harassing the quarterback.

Defensive linemen Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap own 16½ of the team’s 29 sacks, while the secondary, led by free safety Reggie Nelson’s six swipes, has produced all but one of the club’s 14 interceptions this season.

The run game is controlled by nose tackle Domata Peko and linebackers Vontaze Burfict, Rey Maualuga and Vincent Rey. And control is the perfect word when referencing the Cleveland ground attack.

In the last five games, the Browns have amassed 268 yards infantry style for a robust average of 53.6 yards per (69 of those yards in the first Cincy game). Small wonder offensive coordinator John DeFilippo is skittish about calling a run play.

The Cincinnati defense will face more of a conventional NFL quarterback this time in Davis, who gets at least a one-game audition to become a more permanent fixture at the position. That’s good news for the Bengals, who won’t have far to look to find him as opposed to the more frenetic manner in which Manziel runs an offense

As for the Cleveland defense, the only positive it could boast in the first game was two sacks of Dalton. And then you realize the Browns have only eight sacks in five home games this season (seven against Tennessee in week two).

The big question Sunday is whether the Browns have emotionally and psychologically recovered from the devastating way they lost the Monday night game against the Baltimore Ravens. It will require a totally different mind-set and extremely short memory.

What they’ll have to concentrate on is payback for that beatdown in Cincinnati on Nov. 1. Sort of what the Bengals did to them last season in the second game. And you never know when the on-any-given-Sunday axiom kicks in.

That’s not going to happen, though, as the Browns’ season continues to spiral out of control. The losing streak reaches seven games as Dalton, with or without Eifert, accounts for three touchdowns, one running, and the Cincinnati defense picks off Davis twice and completely shuts down the running game. Make it:

Bengals 21, Browns 10

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