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'Battle' to swing AFC North


Ohio has been deciding presidential elections for generations and now on Sunday in Cleveland (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19) it has a hand in deciding a NFL division for the first time in the 21st century when the 8-4-1 Bengals try to hang on to first place in the AFC North against the 7-6 Browns.

The state has yielded eight presidents, a King in LeBron James, and now a prince with Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel getting his first NFL start. The Media Roundtable, stacked with Ohio roots this week, opts for Manziel's playmaking instead of the Bengals' track record of success on the road.

But Tony Grossi of ESPN Cleveland, a native who has covered the Browns in four decades, says the Cleveland defense is the best he's seen in the 15 years since they came back into the NFL

The Dayton market has heavy dose of both fan bases, so The Table turns to a past and present Bengals beat reporter for The Dayton Daily News. Jay Morrison, the current scribe, is the only one today going with the Bengals, citing how well their defense played on the road last month and is now facing an inexperienced quarterback.

Alex Marvez, who worked in Dayton before conquering cyberspace for Fox Sports and the air waves for Fox Sports 1 and Sirius NFL Radio, taps Cleveland in choosing to stay away from the Bengals' inconsistency.

Joe Reedy, a northern Ohio native who grew up with the Browns, lived with the Bengals as a former Cincinnati Enquirer beat man, and now dies with the Indians as a beat man for Fox Sports Ohio, took time out of his busy winter baseball meetings to weigh in on a tilt he'll cover. He figures if guys named Seneca Wallace and Brandon Weeden can beat the Bengals in Cleveland, so can Manziel.

Let's go around The Table. Visitors first, as always.  


Beyond the debut of Johnny Manziel, the fact is the Brown defense is playing better than I've seen it since 1999. For that reason and everything that's at stake, the story of the day in Cleveland will be the defense more so than Johnny Manziel. They don't have a star player in the front seven and have been decimated in the front seven, but they're getting production from a lot of different players and they're heathier than they've been.

The secondary has been the heartbeat of the defense all year long. They play lot of press coverage. They mix it up, but they play a lot of man, a lot of press zone and you can't get a read on them week-to- week. You don't know if they're going to play press man. They did vs. the Colts, which was a surprise against that passing offense, and it was their best game, but they will mix it up.

A lot of times they get a coverage sack. Unless the QB gets the ball out quickly, he's going to be in trouble because guys aren't getting open against this team. They've clicked with what head coach Mike Pettine wants. It shows you how bad the offense has been because the defense has played really well the last month and they lost three of the last four games.

They won't have their rookie free agent find. K'Waun Williams has been fantastic in the slot, which has left Buster Skrine to play the outside. They don't like moving Skrine in and out, but now they have to because Williams is out with a hamstring injury. That means first-round pick Justin Gilbert is going to be on the outside and he had a pick-six last week for his first big play. Free safety Tashaun Gipson still leads the league in interceptions even though he's missed the last two games with a knee injury and he'll miss this one. But Jim Leonhard has two interceptions since he's filled in for him, along with an interception on a two-point conversion, a sack, and 15 tackles. He says this is his last year and in his 10th year he's on his fourth Pettine team, so he's like a coach on the field.

Not only do the rest of us don't know what Johnny is going to do, it seems like the Browns don't know either. They're excited about the unknown. They're feeling positive. They'll definitely look different on offense. They'll try and run the ball and that will be the basis for everything. But they just added an extra runner with this move and they plan to use that extra runner, believe me.

We'll see zone reads, option runs, keepers, improv runs, ad-lib passes. You know how tough it is to defend Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger once the play breaks down and trying to cover his receivers. It's all of that, and just imagine Ben running the free option on top of it. It's unpredictable, but they're excited. He's a big-game guy and this is a big game.

THE EDGE: Browns, 20-10. I think the defense carries the day and Manziel will do enough to supplement it where Brian Hoyer couldn't.


 It's a difficult game for me to gauge. Johnny Manziel impressed me with the one drive he led in Buffalo two weeks ago but the Bengals have a lot more time to prepare for him since he was announced as the starter. I'm sure the offense will look different compared to what Brian Hoyer ran and Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has experience using read option plays and taking advantage of athletic quarterbacks.

To also show the instability of quarterbacks in Cleveland, this marks the seventh straight year that the Bengals are coming to FirstEnergy Stadium and facing a different starter — Ken Dorsey in '08, Derek Anderson '09, Seneca Wallace '10, Colt McCoy, '11, Brandon Weeden '12 and Hoyer '13.

 To me it is going to come down to the running games and the defenses. I'd put the running games at even but the Bengals defense is reeling while the Browns defense scored more touchdowns than the offense last week.

THE EDGE: Browns 20, Bengals 17. The Bengals have struggled in the past at Cleveland and Andy Dalton has never won there in a game in which he has played all four quarters. If Wallace and Weeden can get wins over the Bengals in Cleveland, I think Manziel can.


I've got to think Cleveland is going to use more pistol, more shot gun, more read option to take advantage of what Johnny Manziel does well. The good news is the Bengals could trick Manziel into some interceptions with their coverage, potentially, provided they cover this week, as opposed to the Steelers game.

Offensively, it's the same question every week for the Bengals with quarterback Andy Dalton. Good Andy or Bad Andy? He was pretty good last week, but the defense just didn't play well. The Bengals are just too unpredictable. When these guys play well, they win. When they don't, they don't. It's just been so goofy. I don't get it. They've been so erratic. Some of it has to be personnel on defense. Cincinnati is really tough to get a handle on. Pittsburgh is really tough to get a handle on. New Orleans is really tough to get a handle on. Consistency is what every team strives for and this team is consistently inconsistent.

 THE EDGE: Browns, 24-20. Cleveland's defense is really good. It's going to be high energy at home.  I just have a hard time trusting this Bengals team. Saying that, the Bengals will now win by 30


One of the big questions is if the Bengals are going to stick with their standard and go with the four-man rush and protect the back end. Or are they going to blitz the heck out of Manziel and hope the rookie makes mistakes. I think they'll stick with their M.O. and try to force him to sit back there and make throws. They've had a couple of sacks called back and they had a decent rush, but they're not getting sacks. That may be what they want against Manziel. Maybe they want him to have to hold the ball and make decisions. You have to give them the edge over the rookie QB.

I think the defense has a big role. They played so well in the three games on the road last month; I don't think the environment will be that rowdy for them. New Orleans is a pretty hostile place. Houston is a loud place. Tampa was a little dead, but they had a good run of playing in hostile environments and I think that will carry over into Cleveland.

You look at how Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green is playing right now. It's about the best he's played in his career. It's going to be interesting to see if they're going to come out and try to establish the run with rookie running back Jeremy Hill with the December old AFC  North style. Or are they going to try and get A.J. involved early, get the passing game going and get that 2.0 out of Andy's mind right away? How they start the game is going to be interesting.

I don't think the last game against them will linger with Andy. I think if there's a mistake early it's going to not only get into his mind, but creep into everyone's mind.

THE EDGE: Bengals, 23-20. I think the defense does enough against Manziel. Create maybe some short fields with a turnover here and there. They haven't got a lot of turnovers this year, but you have to figure a rookie quarterback is going to make some mistakes somewhere along the line. I think they'll get their offense going enough to stay ahead of Cleveland. I don't think they'll have an explosion by any means. That's a really good defense and a really good secondary. But I think whichever way Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson decides to go early, they'll stick with whatever works. They ride that out.

Another reason to give an edge to Cincinnati is the Browns haven't swept the Bengals since 2002. It's just one of those series where it always seems to play into a split. You saw it the last two years when the Bengals were the better team and they went up to Cleveland and lost. I think things even out in this game.


After last week's game against Pittsburgh, everyone is down on the Bengals' secondary. But their experience should carry the day Sunday, considering that their first three cornerbacks, Leon Hall, Terence Newman, and Adam Jones, bring in 331 starts compared to Manziel's experience and the 45 starts of his three top wide receivers.

But all that will mean nothing if the Bengals can't stop the run or Manziel's option game. The Bengals have tape of what Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan did to them running rookie RG III at them in 2012 and the Browns have tape of them letting Panthers quarterback Cam Newton get 107 yards rushing against them back in October. The Bengals have lacked enough discipline in the run game that they're on pace to allow 2,000 yards rushing in a season for the first time in 10 years, but they also are coming off a stretch they didn't allow more than 75 yards rushing in three straight road wins.

Cleveland is the ancestral home of the Big Back in the person of Paul Brown's Marion Motley and Jim Brown, so it's fitting that this is where they are in the first game the 230-pound Hill (wearing No. 32 no less) figures to get the bulk of the carries.

His quarterback has struggled against the Browns, in large part because the Browns have stacked the box and dared the Bengals wide receivers to beat their cornerbacks one-on-one and they haven't. And there have been absolutely no spaces to throw it. With Joe Haden draped on Green, it's been a long day. But Green's toe is feeling much better than it did five weeks ago and since the Cleveland game he's on fire with 529 yards.

Plus, Dalton has never been teamed with Green against the Browns with a pounder back that can also break a long one. Their run defense has been tight vs. the Bengals with eight men, but it's an alignment vulnerable to giving up big runs to big backs through the line.

The Browns said after the game they knew exactly what the Bengals were going to run on offense and that went over with the Bengals about as well as Hill's comments about the Browns defense went over with the Browns. Believe that both clubs have had plenty of bulletin-board material this week.

It is a bulletin-board game and that may help a Bengals team that has struggled in the spotlight. With everything pointed at Johnny Football, it's just the kind of game where the Bengals may be able to sneak in and sneak out with that ninth win before the Dawg Pound realizes it.

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