The Bengals.com Media Forum has pushed away from the Thanksgiving feast and is now pulling up at the table to fatten up on Sunday's must AFC North matchup for the 6-4 Bengals (1 p.m.-WLW-AM 700) at Paul Brown Stadium against the 4-6 Browns.
With one abstention the Forum unanimously tabs the Bengals to break their two-game losing streak and stay within at least a game of the Steelers and Ravens. But not before a grinding tractor pull like the one that yanked the Bengals through Opening Day in Cleveland 77 days before as the Bengals sixth-best defense and Browns fifth-best defense line up.
Dave Lapham, the Bengals radio analyst who worked the Battle of Ohio 20 times as a player, doesn't sense the Bengals are looking past this one to the Steelers in Pittsburgh next Sunday and thinks Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer shuts down things.
"I don't think they'll take anything for granted," Lapham says. "I don't think they think they've arrived. They don't seem to be assuming anything."
Tony Grossi, The Cleveland Plain-Dealer's longtime beat man, is assuming the Browns offense is going to continue its transition to master rookie head coach Pat Shurmur's scheme and struggle in a loss. It is a task, he believes, that is made much harder with too few skill players.
"It's been a tough year. It got to the point where the fans were calling for (Eric) Mangini again," Grossi says of the just-fired coach.
Dan Pompei of The Chicago Tribune and the National Football Post sees similar quarterbacks in Cincinnati's Andy Dalton and Cleveland's Colt McCoy, but he sees A.J. Green on only one of the teams.
"They've won 11 out of 14 against the Browns and this is as good a team that won those 11 games," Pompei says.
Vic Carucci of ClevelandBrowns.com is the one abstention. A tough call, he says, with both teams playing it so tight the first time and now knowing so much more about each other after that 27-17 Bengals win in which Cleveland led, 17-13, with less than five minutes left.
Let's go around the table.
I think it's going to be a lot like the first one. You look at Cleveland, they bend but don't break. They don't give up a lot of points. For whatever reason, they're still having trouble stopping the run. They're No. 1 in the league against the pass, but people haven't had to come from behind to throw it on them a lot to catch up.
They've addressed stopping the run with their first two picks and they're not really rookies anymore with the snaps they've gotten. Everybody with the Bengals has run it against them. Corey (Dillon) ran it against them. Rudi (Johnson) ran it against them. Cedric ran for a buck 50 here against them last year and for 121 up there this year. They just run the ball on them and I think that's a big key in this one because it looks like they want to run it with Chris Ogbonnaya.
The one new matchup is Browns defensive tackle Phil Taylor on right guard Bobbie Williams (shelved in September with a league suspension). He hasn't seen Bobbie and Bobbie hasn't seen Taylor, but he's seen a lot of guys like him. That's got to be a factor.
D'Qwell Jackson is playing really good for the Browns at middle linebacker. They have to get a hat on him. Whoever is responsible has to keep a hat on him because that kid will play every snap. Kyle Cook is playing really well at center for the Bengals. I thought he blocked Ngata pretty well and Mount Cody last week in Baltimore. He's been more than solid. He's had a really good six games.
The trenches are going to be huge, the biggest factor in the game. Give the edge to the Bengals. A total of 21.5 of their 27 sacks are from the defensive line. They continue to shine.
Both Dalton and McCoy can extend with their feet a little bit and they both throw pretty well on the run. That's the one thing they learned in Cleveland. (Safety) Reggie Nelson in particular, you can't drop coverage. The tight ends hurt the Bengals last time and they've got to get a good game out of the linebackers like Thomas Howard and Manny Lawson. Which tight end group is going to be the best group, just not catching the ball, but who is going to block best in the running game setting the edge? I thought against Pittsburgh in particular (Jermaine) Gresham and (Colin) Cochart blocked pretty well on the edge. I think it's going to be big in this game. I think Cochart's going to be around awhile. He's country strong.
You can't let them get a 100-yard rusher and you have to get one. I think that's the key in this one.
It would be nice to have A.J. Green out there even if he's not going have a big impact in terms of the number of catches. Let's face it. Haden had five pass breakups against him last time, a career-high. He did a good job against him. But what (Green) does is create space for everybody else. When you have a threat like that, it makes it easier for everybody else. Having him on the field is a big deal.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 17-13: The thing that amazes me is the bad start the Browns have had in every game, 58-9 in the first quarter. Nine points in 10 games in the first quarter. I think if the Bengals come out and something happens for them early and doesn't happen early for Cleveland, I think that's a big deal in this game.
The loss to the Bengals on Opening Day did have an impact on them. They had such a good preseason that it raised expectations and hid the realities of the challenges they faced with a new head coach, new offense, and new defense with no OTAs.
They've played very good defense. New defensive coordinator Dick Jauron is the MVP. He fell on his sword after the Bengals quick-snapped them for the win, and they immediately moved to fix that. Now when the offense is coming out of a timeout, they don't really huddle and they make sure the secondary is keeping an eye on the receivers.
Joe Haden at cornerback is obviously one of their top players. If he'd been able to catch some of those balls, he'd be leading the NFL in interceptions instead of pass breakups. And he's been an aggressive tackler.
They love their two top draft picks up front in tackle Phil Taylor and end Jabaal Sheard, and tackle Ahtyba Rubin has made a lot plays. D'Qwell Jackson has really come on at middle linebacker.
So they make it tough on you to score, but they can't score. They just don't have the playmakers at the wide receiver position that you need in this day and age to score with any kid of consistency. Running back has been a mess and it's hard to make some kind of call on McCoy. He hasn't been inspired but he doesn't have a lot of weapons around him, either.
Special teams used to be a strength but this year they lost some veterans and that's hurt them. They've had three field goals blocked and when Jacoby Ford returned a kickoff against them in Oakland, Josh Cribbs volunteered to cover kicks. He's been neutralized some by the new rule (kicking it from the 35) when he returns.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 23-13. I think the Browns are heading into it with the right mindset after winning in Jacksonville (14-10), but I just don't see them scoring enough to win this one and the defense is going to be on the field too long.
Both teams are better than they were back in the opener. The Bengals are two games better and that might be about right, but I think the young Browns players on offense are growing up as we watch.
Take a look at their two starting guards, Jason Pinkston and Shawn Lauvao, basically two rookies that were over their heads at the start. But the last two games they've played like pros and Ogbonnaya has had big days the last two weeks, 90 yards against the Rams and 115 last week against Jacksonville.
Jordan Norwood, a first-year player, had the big play last week, a 51-yarder where he made a nice read against a blitz and hooked up with McCoy, and with some of their running backs getting healthy they're going to be pretty close to full strength for the first time in a while.
Their defense has obviously carried them and the youngsters have shown a lot of promise. Jackson is coming into his own in the middle and Taylor has four sacks, but they've also been really strong in the secondary where a couple of veterans have helped Haden and safety T.J. Ward.
Ward won't play Sunday. But an eight-year guy, Mike Adams, has played well and added to what is a pretty savvy group. They call him "Pops," and then you've got a 10-year veteran playing the other cornerback, Sheldon Brown, so it's an experienced position group and their coach, Jerome Henderson has done a great job.
Going into the opener, the Bengals knew McCoy better than the Browns knew Dalton, so that is going to be interesting to see how Cleveland prepares.
THE EDGE: Either way. With nine more games under their belts, it's going to be another close, competitive game that probably comes down to the last few minutes again.
I would expect the Bengals to win. They've won 11 out of 14 against the Browns and this is as good a team that won those 11 games. And they've been put in a position the last couple of weeks where there is a desperation factor if they want to stay in the race with the Steelers and Ravens.
The AFC is totally up for grabs and the Bengals have a shot to make it. Arguably this might not be as talented as some teams they've had, but they've got chemistry and players and coaches look to be working well together in their schemes.
I think the Browns are going to have a hard-time scoring against the Bengals and I would think they're going to have to pay attention to (Adam) Jones (at cornerback). I see a low-scoring game. The Browns are playing good defense. They're tough up front and Haden is a good player, but I'm not sure they can get enough points.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 20-17. The quarterbacks are similar players, but it sounds like A.J. is going to be back and that makes Dalton the better player. McCoy doesn't have any anybody like that.
THE BOTTOM LINE: This is a game where mind matters. After back-to-back tough losses to the AFC elite and a home game on a holiday weekend beckoning against a team they beat earlier, the old Bengals would find a way to blow it. If these are the new Bengals, they'll be workmanlike and win this game where they won the last one up in Cleveland on Opening Day:
When they trailed 17-13 late in the second half, the front seven kept the Bengals in the game holding the Browns to nine yards on nine carries in the running game. And their defensive line got a big rush on McCoy. Plus, they pounded running back Cedric Benson 17 times to the left side, where left tackle Andrew Whitworth took advantage of his almost 100-pound advantage against rookie right end Jabaal Sheard.
But it was the right side's blocking that sprung the last and clinching run, Benson's longest of the season (and longest against the Browns by anyone this season) for a 39-yard touchdown that made it 27-17.
Expect the same kind of tight tractor pull that forced the Bengals to grind out the first of their four fourth-quarter comebacks. If anything, the Browns are better than they were Opening Day with a defense that allows just 19.3 points per game with emerging D'Qwell Jackson at middle linebacker and a pair of young guards in Jason Pinkston and Shawn Lauvao getting their footing.
The Bengals are dinged. Left end Carlos Dunlap won't get a shot at banged-up right tackle Tony Pashos because he's out with his hamstring problem and right end Michael Johnson, who played a superb game against Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas, got nicked last week and was limited a bit this week.
And nose tackle Domata Peko, a force in Cleveland, didn't practice until Friday, with a foot ailment.
But mind over matter.
The Browns allow 4.3 yards per run and have allowed five 100-yard rushers and three straight until Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew nearly did it with 87 on just 21 carries last week.
The Browns have tried three running backs themselves, but average 3.5 yards per carry and it sounds like they're going to try all three of them (Peyton Hillis, Montario Hardesty, Ogbonnaya) on Sunday.
The fear for the Bengals is their propensity to give up the big play. Last Sunday in Baltimore they allowed half of the Ravens 373 yards on four plays.
But the Browns don't make many big ones. McCoy's yards per attempt is barely six yards per throw and while Ogbonnaya has introduced quick, fresh legs at 4.3 yards per pop, the Bengals are hanging in at second in the league in allowing yards per rush despite Ray Rice's 59-yard bolt last week.
The Bengals can't get in a tight game with special teams aces Josh Cribbs and Phil Dawson hanging around. Cribbs is fifth in the NFL returning kicks (21st in punts) and Dawson is 6-for-6 from 50 yards and beyond.
But mind over matter. The Bengals are eighth returning punts in the NFL and the Browns are 24th covering them.
With cornerback Adam Jones now starting, it is going to take him longer to win his debates with special teams coach Darrin Simmons to return some punts. But he'll win one at some point.
The stats say Sunday plays out in the Bengals favor. If that's how it plays out.