The last time the Bengals and Browns played so late in the season in a game that mattered so much to both, the Berlin Wall had just been torn down 24 years ago. And to hear the Browns talking this week, Sunday's game at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) borders on a historical watershed.
The 4-5 Browns are hyping their chance to tie the 6-4 Bengals in the loss column in the conflicted AFC North as a big-game referendum for their talented developing roster that has some thinking about the 2011 Bengals when defense saved youth.
The Bengals.com Media Roundtable can't come to a resolution on a Real Battle of Ohio in a Cold War stalemate where there is only one agreement: it's going to be tight and two of the NFL's best defensive coordinators, Cincinnati's Mike Zimmer and Cleveland's Ray Horton, won't allow many points.
Former longtime NFL quarterback Rich Gannon, calling the game for CBS with a true historical landmark, the incomparable Marv Albert, gives the edge to the Bengals because he thinks Zimmer cools off Browns quarterback Jason Campbell with his variety of pressures.
Paul Dehner, Jr., one half of The Cincinnati Enquirer's effective double team of Bengals beat writers and co-host of the paper's "Beyond The Stripes" Internet show, also goes with Zimmer as well as Cincinnati's 4-0 record at home.
Tony Grossi of ESPNCleveland.com, who covered that '89 game the Bengals won on Dec. 3 with two Boomer Esiason TD passes that upped Cincinnati's record to 7-6 and dropped Cleveland to 7-5-1, is calling it for the Browns because of defense, the mistake-free play of Campbell, and the banged-up Bengals trying to hold on for next week's bye.
Vic Carucci of ClevelandBrowns.com who pumps out Cleveland Browns Daily, also gives the nod to the Browns citing the offense's steady play matched with the defense's top 10 numbers.
Let's go around The Table:
I think the Bengals probably learned a lot from the first game. Especially having seen what Cleveland can bring to the table, they're not going to be taking anyone lightly.
They couldn't get much going offensively that last time, but they're a different team now as far as understanding how to use their weapons. I think you'll see them use running back Giovani Bernard more and some of the quick hits and things to get him out in space more, which they didn't do a whole lot in the first game.
At the time of that last game the Browns were No. 1 in the league against the rush and they're still up there pretty good. The way the Bengals have been up and down trying to find some traction in the run game, it seems like they need one of those good running games to take the pressure off Andy Dalton.
They rely so much on his arm winning and losing games. They've got to find a way where it's not so much on his shoulders. The last couple of weeks it's been because he's been forced to throw it 50-plus times two weeks in a row. That's not ideal, but there are too many good players on this team to have games constantly won and lost by one guy.
The offense has clearly been much better when they don't target wide receiver A.J. Green so much. The coaches will say, 'Guys have to step up.' But a lot of times it's on the quarterback to be looking for them and getting them involved. That's another problem about falling behind. When they do that they tend to shove it in to No. 18 because he's the best player on the field. But in reality the offense has been at its best when they spread it around the field.
The defense gave up a few plays to Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer last time, but they still did a pretty good job of shutting them down. I think the defense is pretty confident that they know what Campbell is trying to do. Defensive end Wallace Gilberry called him 'The Checkdown King.' He's not trying to force anything. He's trying to make the smart play and not make the mistakes, and the Bengals feast off that.
"Go ahead and try and just take the safe stuff. Take your checkdown and we'll hold you to two yards with no YAC." What made Hoyer good against them is he took some chances. The one up top to wide receiver Josh Gordon for 33 yards, the big backbreaker to tight end Jordan Cameron. He took some chances and you wonder if Campbell will do the same thing.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 16-13. As good as the Bengals have been at home this year, I think that will be the difference. If you look at some of the stuff coming out of the Cleveland locker room, they are as confident as any group you've ever seen. Particularly for a team that's won one game in a row. But they really believe. This is a huge pedestal game for them. A chance to really announce themselves. I think the Bengals understand that. When they've been at home they've played their best. I think they'll get another. I can't imagine it being anything but close. At the end of the day, I think the Bengals make one or two more plays on offense, I think Gio does something special, and that will be the difference.
The strength of the Browns is, no question, their defense. They matched up really well the last time they played. Ray Horton has done a hell of a job. They've got multiple pass rushers. They're pretty sound against the run. They've got talent at the linebacker position. Cornerback Buster Skrine has played well and safety T.J. Ward is a handful.
But I think where the advantage swings in the other direction is Cincinnati's defense going against Cleveland's offense. Cleveland can't run the ball and if you get after Browns quarterback Jason Campbell I think he's a much different player. I think Mike Zimmer and the defense will get around him. They'll get him moving, they'll hit him and I think turnovers will be a bit of a factor in this game.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 24-13. I've looked at a lot of defenses and I think Mike Zimmer is as good as there is in the business.
For the Bengals offense, I think A. J. Green on cornerback Joe Haden is going to be fun to watch. You know Haden is going to follow A.J. all over the field and that will be a great battle. It will be fun to watch. But if you're Andy Dalton you can't just say, 'I'm going to stay away from him.' You have to do some things like short motions, stack releases, bunch sets to get him off the press and get him away from Haden a little bit. Help him out. Don't let him just sit out there and fend for himself because that will be a tough one.
The other guys, wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, and the rest of them have to make some plays. Somebody other than A.J. The tight ends are going to be big factors in this one. I think these other guys have to play well and there will be some real opportunities for them. I think those are some matchups they can take advantage of because they're in their favor.
The biggest questions are going be how this defense handles an Andy Dalton trying to regain his confidence. It comes down to does he regroup and get himself together at a time he absolutely needs to do it against a Browns defense coming off an inspired game against Baltimore after feeling pretty good about their second half against Kansas City. And the Browns defense has to prevent him from finding the incredible groove Dalton had before the game in Miami.
The Browns have gotten a real lift from Campbell. He's brought efficiency, poise, leadership, a lot of qualities to that position that just weren't there previously with Brandon Weeden. It's a little different with Campbell. He's a bigger guy. He's got the strongest arm of the three quarterbacks that have played this season. He's got a little more mobility. More than anything he brings experience that is very contagious to the players around him. They sensed there is a guy who just knows what he's doing and that's permeated through the offense.
The Browns secondary has played very well. They've had two really pleasant surprises. One is Skrine at the corner opposite Haden. That was one of the huge, huge question marks in the offseason. They drafted Leon McFadden in the third round and it was evident he wasn't going to be ready this year. Chris Owens came in as a veteran with some experience, but Skrine has really turned around what had been a struggle. I give him credit. I think Browns secondary coach Louie Cioffi deserves a lot of credit and has done a great job making him a more technically sound guy. He's been exceptional.
Coming into the season, internally there was a lot of concern about that free safety spot and it ended up being handled quite well with Tashaun Gipson. He's been remarkable. Ray Horton thinks he's been the defensive MVP through the first seven games. I don't know if I agree with that, but it's deserved praise and the other safety, T.J. Ward, is, by far, having his best season at strong safety.
You can't even call the Cleveland running game decent or average. They don't run the ball well at all. That's their problem. That could end up biting them in the long run. It's definitely an issue. Does Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins's loss help them? I don't know. They have to try and do some things schematically to make the running game better. They excel at protecting the passer. That's what they do first and foremost. And Campbell does a good job getting the ball out of his hand and makes good decisions. He doesn't panic back there.
THE EDGE: Browns, 24-21. Campbell continues his roll and I think the defense can prevent Dalton from finding his hot hand.
The Browns are very healthy mentally and physically coming off the bye. They had a big win against Baltimore and what little bruises they had are healed up, so they have no excuses in a big moment for them and we'll see how they react to that.
They feel they're ready. Most of the guys on this team haven't been through all the losing the rest of us have. This is their first big division game. They seem to be in the right frame of mind. Confident, not cocky. There's a nice blend that developed over the course of the year with veterans like Campbell and leaders like left tackle Joe Thomas and inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson. They see the road ahead is there for them.
We only have two games to go on with Campbell and he's been fantastic against Kansas City and Baltimore. It leaves some of us wondering if he's had a good start or if he's reinventing himself in his ninth year.
Wide receiver Josh Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron continue to have big games and against Baltimore they finally got some contributions from wide receiver Davone Bess, who has been a real disappointment, and wide receiver Greg Little. Norv Turner's offense is all about having multiple threats so you can't zero in on one and this is the first time someone other than Cameron or Gordon came to the rescue and it was just enough.
I don't think anyone can expect A.J. to have another non-impactful game like he did in the last game. He was 7-for-51 and looked a little frustrated. I don't know if the Browns can expect that to happen again. But the Browns have a lot of confidence in their secondary. Horton is doing a little more on the blitz end, which he's known for. Those numbers were down earlier in the season, but now he's starting to crank it up more.
The biggest surprise to me about his defense is that it has been consistently good against the run. Historically here they would give up 200 yards rushing a lot. I know the run is down all over the league, but they have been consistently shutting down the feature back of everyone they face and I think that's been the key to their pass rush. The pass rush is the whole foundation of Horton's defense here. From the day Horton arrived it's been all about the pass rush. And yet the run has been holding up well.
THE EDGE: Browns, 24-23. I get the impression from afar that Cincinnati is spitting oil and running on fumes trying to get to the bye week, while the Browns have been refreshed by their bye week. They can smell the big game and they're hungry to deliver in one of them. My confidence in the Browns can be singled out in the play of the quarterback and that confidence has spread through the offense and fueled the defense. I've contended all along that having a veteran quarterback on the field is so calming for them because they have such a young offense. It always seemed like they had a young guy trying to win a big game, but Campbell has provided comfort for the players and coaches. They feel like, 'It's our time.'
Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski twice on Wednesday said the winner of this game is "in the driver's seat" in the division. And that's what the team has been echoing all week: the chance to get in the driver's seat in the division. The Browns have never been better than 3-3 in the division since '02 and a win Sunday can assure them of that.
Coaches have come through here never grasping the importance of the division games the way the other three teams have. For Eric Mangini, it was playing the Patriots and the Jets. For Romeo Crennel, it was some of those NFC East teams. Chudzinski being from Ohio and being a Browns fan—plus he's coached here twice before—really gets the AFC North.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Amazing how two weeks can change perception in the NFL.
The Bengals have gone from hot Super Bowl contender to also-ran while Andy Dalton has gone from franchise record-breaking quarterback to Draft Day trade bait.
Meanwhile in those same two weeks the Browns, with one win and a bye, have gone from another one of their tiresome rebuilding projects to civic heroes. Jason Campbell has moved from retread backup to a Unitas-like figure for a franchise that hasn't had production and leadership at quarterback since, well, dare we say Kelly Holcomb and Tim Couch at the turn of the century?
So we're somewhere in between all that, obviously, and the Bengals are only three weeks removed from blowing out another AFC contender in this building.
Campbell is more than a retread. He's a smart guy who doesn't throw picks (81 TDs to 52 interceptions in his career) and with the defense Horton has constructed, that's a dangerous combination. But Campbell has a career record of 32-41 and it'd be confounding to suffer a first home loss after beating Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Geno Smith at PBS.
With Zimmer and Horton doling out points like calories on The Biggest Loser, it's pretty clear Sunday comes down to picks. Campbell has five TDs and no picks in his two starts, Dalton two and six, respectively, in his last two. If it unfolds like that, game, set, match for Horton.
This game is going to tip on how effectively Dalton and his receivers beat one-on-one coverage and how well the Bengals can protect against a pass rush averaging 3.4 sacks per game, second best in the NFL. It would be nice to run the ball and the Bengals have to do more than they did last time in Cleveland, when they handed it off four times in the second half and didn't run the ball in the last 19:25 of the game.
But the Browns are going to make the Bengals throw them out of the eight-man front, and that's why it's such a huge test for the non-Green Bengals receivers and the offensive line.
Last Sunday in Baltimore the Ravens dared Dalton to throw and he couldn't. A month ago the Lions dared Dalton to throw and he did. If it weren't for a 42-yard tipped pass and 51-yard Hail Mary to Green, and a 40-yard effort play by tight end Tyler Eifert, those passing numbers last week would have been historically bad.
And the Bengals can't do what they did last time in Cleveland, when they threw it 15 times to Green and 10 times to the other wide receivers. Or let the Browns get to Dalton like the Ravens did with five sacks.
Yes, the Bengals had to rally from at least two TDs down in their last two games. And yes, both went into overtime. But no one in or outside PBS thinks the Bengals can keep throwing 50 times a game and survive. After the Bengals abandoned the run in Cleveland, there was a concerted effort to get it back on the rails and the same kind of emphasis may emerge this Sunday. If they get into a dropback war with Horton and his diverse universe of rushers, Dalton will get mauled. The depth chart ranges from rookie linebacker Barkevious Mingo's four sacks to 3.5 from right end Desmond Bryant, three from inside backer Craig Robertson, and 2.5 from nose tackle Phil Taylor.
The Bengals won't have right guard Kevin Zeitler (foot), but they can replace him with Mike Pollak, a guy that saw plenty of 3-4 defenses in 41 starts with the Colts.
Defensively, the Bengals should have the upper hand. They are probably going to be missing nickel cornerback Chris Crocker (hamstring) and the Browns would no doubt like to see what slot receiver Davone Bess (one of his 13 third-down catches is a 20-yard TD) does against Dre Kirkpatrick or Brandon Ghee. Last time out, Ghee played pretty well but gave up a huge third-down catch to Bess in the red zone that led to Cleveland's first touchdown.
But for the second straight week the Bengals play a running game that is non-existent. That's all Zimmer needs. If he made life miserable for Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, it's not going to be a day at the beach for Campbell. But it's a big game for the safeties. They have to make sure he has no long runs out of the pocket.
So it comes down to getting points and if the Bengals can throw Horton out of his one-on-ones.