Saturday, December 10, 2016

Brace yourself Browns fans

It has become a four-game season for the Browns.

Never mind the first 12 games. Never mind they lost all 12. Call them the Dirty Dozen.

All that is ancient history. They are gone. They can be replayed only in the mind. But only a masochist would do so.

It has now become a four-game season and it starts Sunday in Cleveland against the Cincinnati Bengals, one of the 11 teams that defeated them (Baltimore did it twice).

The winless Browns have had the better part of two weeks, courtesy of the bye week, to recover psychologically and emotionally from what has unfolded this season.

If coach Hue Jackson in any way, shape or form references what took place in those 12 games, he is making a mistake. The future of this team does not lie in its past and he needs to hammer home that point.

Films and/or tapes of those games should have been burned beyond recognition. They are as useful as yesterday’s garbage.

The Bengals also have their problems, but not nearly as drastic as the Browns’. They languish in third place in the AFC North, a division they have won two of the last three seasons, missing by just a half game in 2014.

The Bengals who arrive in Cleveland Sunday are not the same team that thrashed the Browns, 31-17, in week seven down in Cincinnati, piling up 559 total yards, 271 on the ground.

It also represents of one of only two victories in their last seven games. Since then, they tied Washington and suffered losses of one, four and five points before last Sunday’s 32-14 thrashing of the Philadelphia Eagle at home. It will take a miracle for them to qualify for the postseason for the sixth straight season.

They are a wounded team in many ways, especially on offense, which operates minus A. J. Green, its best receiver, and Giovani Bernard, its most productive running back. A sprained hamstring has kept Green, who has demonized the Browns in the past, idle the last several weeks. Bernard tore an ACL several weeks ago.

Quarterback Andy Dalton, who completed eight passes to Green for 169 yards in the first meeting, now has wideouts Tyler Boyd, Brandon LaFell, James Wright, Alex Erickson, and Cody Core and tight end Tyler Eifert as his targets. Only Eifert poses a threat.

Dalton enjoys playing against the Browns (what quarterback doesn’t?), winning eight of his 11 starts, including the last four in a row and five of the last six. In those last four outings, the Bengals have scored 129 points (the Browns have scored 30).

With Bernard out, Jeremy Hill and Rex Burkhead have shared the running game. In the first meeting, Hill ran only nine times, but piled up 168 yards and a touchdown. He injured an ankle a couple of weeks ago, but returned in the Eagles’ victory and rushed for only 33 yards in 23 attempts.

If after witnessing it time and again, you believe struggling teams get healthy quickly against the Browns, then you probably believe there is no way they snap their overall 15-game losing streak and split the season series with the Bengals.

Of all the remaining teams on the schedule (at Buffalo, home to San Diego and at Pittsburgh), this one has arguably the best chance of winding up in the column on the left for the Browns even though the Cincinnati defense has been somewhat stingy this season and could pose the biggest problem Sunday.

That defense will face Robert Griffin III, who has been cleared for full-time duty after fracturing his shoulder in the season-opening loss in Philadelphia. It gives Jackson a chance to reopen his playbook for the veteran quarterback.

It should be a welcome relief for Jackson to know he’ll be game-planning for a quarterback who can come closer than any quarterback on the roster to accomplishing what he wants.

If the injury-prone quarterback can remain healthy for the entire game, the Browns have a good shot at the upset. However, the extremely shaky offensive line, which became even shakier with right guard John Greco landing on injured reserve, must protect him against a decent Bengals pass rush.

But it will be The Third’s legs that will save him, especially on rollouts that enable him to buy time to throw the ball, a talent his Browns predecessors lack. That, in turn, will open up a running game that has gone AWOL in the last six games.

The defense, which played well for the most part against the New York Giants a couple of weeks ago, will take the cue and slow down the Cincinnati attack, especially with Green and Bernard absent.

The Third throws scoring passes to Andrew Hawkins and Terrelle Pryor, Isaiah Crowell emerges from wherever he has been hiding the last month and a half and runs well and the defense gives up its fewest points of the season.

Not counting this season and 1982 when a players strike abbreviated the season and they met only once, the Browns and Bengals have played each other twice a season 42 times since 1970.

The Browns have swept the season series just eight times, only once since the rebirth of the franchise in 1999. The Bengals have swept it on 11 occasions, six since the rebirth. They have split the series 23 times, 10 since the rebirth.

Since these teams tend to split the season series much more often than sweep it, the temptation to lean in that direction for Sunday’s game is somewhat overwhelming. Odds say a split, i.e. a Browns victory guaranteeing that split, is more likely than another Bengals sweep.

That said, and with nothing more than a feeling based on very little evidence to back it up, this is where the losing streaks end. The 12-gamer this season and the 15-gamer extending from last season will be history. The Factory of Sadness becomes the Factory of Joy for at least this one Sunday in 2016, but it won’t be easy. Make it:

Browns 20, Bengals 17 (overtime)

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