This week's Bengals.com media roundtable rubberstamps what every expert from Boomer to your Uncle Billy is picking. The Bengals get the unanimous edge Sunday in their soldout home opener at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) because the panel likes Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's ability to make life miserable for Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden and Bengals Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green's matchup against a Cleveland secondary without cornerback Joe Haden.
Cleveland brings to town two ingredients ripe for an upset with an opportunistic defense and dangerous special teams, but the Browns can't get any traction with our group because they just don't see how Cleveland can score.
Pete Prisco of CBS Sports, the biggest Bengals backer among the jet-set national pundits, isn't backing down after Monday night's loss. In fact, he says the Bengals are about to go on a winning streak.
John Clayton, ESPN's "The Professor," has emerged from his commercial and told his mother he's picking the Bengals because a rookie quarterback falls smack dab in the middle of their home opener.
Tony Grossi, the Browns analyst for Cleveland.com and ESPN 850 WKNR who has been covering the club longer than Joe Haden has been alive, sees some hope. The rookie QB has a big arm and the defense is tough and physical, but it's going to take time and Week 2 on the road isn't time.
Former Bengals defensive tackle John Thornton, a frequent analyst on Cincinnati radio, went to Cleveland last Sunday to watch the Browns lose late to the Eagles, 17-16, and he's picking the Bengals. After watching Eagles running back LeSean McCoy go for 110 yards, he thinks the Bengals may be able to do some work on the ground.
Let's go around the table:
The Browns gave themselves and their fans a boost the way they played last Sunday against the Eagles. The last few years they've played the Bengals competitively and I could see that happening again with the Browns coming off a game within their grasp having another game like that decided at the end. That's not out of the realm.
But they're just so young on offense. Rookie quarterback, rookie running back, rookie right tackle. They need time to learn each other and get on the same page. They really like another rookie, the receiver Josh Gordon (second-round supplemental draft pick). He's got elite physical skills but not a lot of experience. They're fast-tracking him to be a contributor.
Running back Trent Richardson came out of the opener unscathed and his timing should be better this week since he didn't play a single preseason game.
The obvious matchup is the Browns secondary with the loss of cornerback Joe Haden (gone for four games with NFL suspension) going against A.J. Green. He beat them twice last year with Haden on him so they've got to figure that out. Their slot corner, Dimitri Patterson, is starting now, but he'll go back inside on passing downs and Buster Skrine is on the outside. They've got another rookie, a seventh-rounder, Tevin Wade, who plays just slot. It's a tough game to lose Haden.
Their linebackers played exceptionally well and they got really surprising games out of rookies L.J. Fort and Craig Robertson. They both had interceptions in their first game on Sunday and the middle linebacker, D'Qwell Jackson, also had one for a touchdown, and he's good all-around player.
They're banged up on the defensive line with tackle Phil Taylor on PUP, but their best lineman may be tackle Ahtyba Rubin. They got Frostee Rucker to clamp down on the perimeter runs, but with the play of the linebackers he wasn't even one of their top five players on defense. The problem last year is they were 30th against the run and they're 27th now. They've got rookie tackles who gave them some hope and they may play the kid from Cincinnati (third-rounder John Hughes) more after they played sixth-rounder Billy Winn a lot last week.
Browns defensive coordinator Dick Jauron is the perfect guy to be in control of all the stuff that's happened on defense. He's calm. In control. He's become one of their best resources. They got such a good game out of their untested linebackers and their rookies up front.
They've cut back on Josh Cribbs's snaps at receiver and he's back to where he was a few years ago. He's always been a dangerous return guy, but now he's back being the first guy downfield covering kicks. He's such a unique player. There's no one really like him and he's still in his prime and he always makes them a challenge on special teams.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 22-13. Marvin Lewis is 13-5 against the Browns and gets another one against a team that right now is very young.
I think the Bengals will come out and play well at home after what happened in Baltimore, but this is going to be a typical low-scoring AFC North game.
The Browns are solid on defense. They don't have any elite pass rushers, but they have a solid D-line group. With Rubin and Frostee the Bengals have to be careful about their push up the middle and it's going to be a test for the young Bengals guards. The Eagles have a lot of good weapons and the Browns held them down. They were in Michael Vick's face a lot.
They guy they are really going to miss is Haden. He played great against the Eagles. He was all over the place in the running game and he covered the Eagles' very good receivers. The one thing the Bengals have to fix is picking up that weakside blitz. Ravens cornerback Lardarius* *Webb kept doing that Monday night and they have to figure it out. Either they're not picking it up or Andy Dalton is holding the ball too long or can't see it.
One matchup that looks like is in the Bengals favor is on the right side with tackle Andre Smith (330 pounds) against Browns end Jabaal Sheard (255). The Eagles got a lot of their rushing yards to the right edge and LeSean McCoy had 100 yards.
The Bengals cornerbacks have to play better. The Browns rookie quarterback, Brandon Weeden, has a big arm. It's not like last year with Colt McCoy throwing a lot of short passes.
THE EDGE: Bengals, something like 21-10, 24-13. Typical AFC North game. They'll make a couple of plays against a rookie quarterback that struggled last week and this time he'll be on the road in a sellout. The Bengals got embarrassed last week, so they'll be ready to play. They should win by eight to 12 points.
I think the Bengals go on a little bit of a run right now. They'll be fine. They were in a tough spot down there in Baltimore. What impressed me is they made it 17-13 in an emotional game on a Monday night when they easily could have folded.
They're going against an offense that did nothing the other day and against a defense that is still learning. Losing Haden is a big hit for them in that matchup with A.J. Green. This is a very good matchup for Cincinnati's defense, especially at home. I thought they moved the ball pretty well on Baltimore until the game got out of hand.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 21-7. Mike Zimmer, their defensive coordinator, is going to throw the kitchen sink at Weeden and he's got the experienced players to do it.
The Browns have a good defense, but if you look at it they're missing three guys (Taylor, Haden, linebacker Chris Gocong) and you wonder how long they'll be able to hold up with an offense that is really struggling with a rookie quarterback.
The Thomas Howard injury is huge for the Bengals. A big loss. But I don't think it hurts them this week. The one thing you wonder about the Bengals after watching the game Monday is if they're too old at cornerback.
THE EDGE: Bengals because they're home. In my forecasts I didn't have them better than the Ravens yet. But the Ravens also aren't 30 points better than the Bengals, either. I'm looking for the Bengals to win because I'll be in Washington the next week covering them against the Redskins.
THE BOTTOM LINE
All Bengals fans of a certain age, no doubt, are keeping in mind the name of Eric Zeier this weekend as the Bengals prepare to meet Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden.
It was Zeier who came into Riverfront Stadium in 1995 and led the Browns to an overtime victory with 310 yards in his first NFL start. Zeier went on to win just four of his 12 NFL starts in six seasons.
But the past shouldn't repeat itself here.
Weeden, one of the two Browns first-round picks making his second NFL start, should be around a lot longer than that and the Bengals defense is a lot better than it was in 1995.
Even without Cincinnati's best linebacker, Thomas Howard, lost for the season in practice Thursday. Howard apparently stopped quickly and his knee gave way in a freak accident.
It's a huge loss, given that Howard is Cincinnati's best cover backer in the pass-happy NFL and the Bengals don't have a three-down backer behind him on the depth chart. There aren't a lot of those guys running around and they'll need to get good play in nickel situations from Vincent Rey, a second-year player who has barely played from scrimmage.
But it shouldn't hurt the Bengals on Sunday against a Browns offense that is struggling with youth. Weeden isn't Cleveland's only rookie. He's got a rookie running back, rookie right tackle, and a rookie wide receiver, as well as a second-year receiver in Greg Little in the starting lineup. Running back Trent Richardson is a big part of the Browns offense and the thinking is they'll run the ball to protect Weeden from Zimmer's funky looks.
The run should decide this game like it has decided this series since the Browns came into the league in 1999. If turnovers have defined Ravens-Bengals and sacks Steelers-Bengals, then the run has defined this one with the Bengals going 14-2 in the 16 games they've had a 100-yard rusher in the last 26 games against Cleveland.
The Browns have a good, tough defense and a former Bengals defensive back by the name of Dick Jauron has turned it into a tough, smart top 10 unit with stingy red-zone play. But they have given up yards on the ground. They were 30th against the rush last season and in last week's opener they gave up 110 yards to Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy on 20 carries.
Cleveland also has some rookie D-tackles and its imperative the young Bengals guards get the same kind of push they did in Baltimore last Monday night. The Browns got superb linebacker play against the Eagles with three interceptions and the run game is going to have to loosen them up. One intriguing potential matchup is Bengals center Jeff Faine, a former Browns No. 1 draft pick, against middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, Cleveland's best player.
The Browns aren't a big blitzing team, but Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is looking for better blitz pickup from running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Brian Leonard.
This is the beauty of playing at home. When Leonard and Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton couldn't communicate because of crowd noise in Baltimore last Monday, they allowed the pressure that turned into Ed Reed's touchdown interception return. No such problems like that Sunday when they have the ball.
Jackson is the best Browns defensive player because tackle Phil Taylor (shoulder) and cornerback Joe Haden (NFL suspension) aren't playing. All eyes are on Bengals Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green turning it up against a team he beat twice on two long balls last year even with Haden in the lineup.
But Green and everyone else have to contribute in the red zone, where the Browns were No. 3 last season preventing TDs and the Bengals were No. 26 scoring them. As left tackle Andrew Whitworth said early in the week, that's where the best players have to surface.
Cleveland's best player may never see the red zone, but he can get the Browns there. Wide receiver Josh Cribbs has had his scrimmage snaps reduced, but it has helped him remain one of the best return men in the game as well as a great cover player. Cincinnati's ability to generate big punt returns in the second half of tight games bailed out the Bengals a few times last season.
And if last year's script is going to play out with a fourth-quarter game, the Browns are dangerous. They don't allow a lot of points and if the Browns don't get a big play from the rookies, they can get one from Cribbs.
Translation: Convert more than twice in the red zone, make all the field-goal tries, keep Cribbs in check and the Bengals should be OK. They can't give away points against a team that doesn't give up many.