BENGALS WR A.J. GREEN VS. BROWNS CB JOE HADEN
In reality, Sunday's game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) is most likely going to come down to the other matchups.
And there will be matchups. Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton, a 1983 Bengals draft pick and Dick LeBeau disciple, dares offenses to beat his people one-on-one while he loads up the box with a Pandora's Box of pressure.
So what are Cincinnati's non-Green receivers going to do against Cleveland's non-Haden defensive backs in those one-on-one matchups? If Green's yards are going to come no matter what, as he says, and Haden is going to make plays no matter what level receiver he's facing, then what Bengals wide receiver Marvin Joes does against Buster Skrine and what running back Giovani Bernard does against Browns safety Tashaun Gipson may be the more relevant questions.
After all, the Bengals have won and lost in Green's club-record five straight 100-yard games. But when Jones and wide receiver Mohamed Sanu couldn't get loose in the last two games and tight end Jermaine Gresham didn't play last week in Baltimore, the Bengals lost despite Green's numbers.
"If you go back to where we were when I sat in this room after the Cleveland game the first time, my point was that the other guys need to raise their level," head coach Marvin Lewis said in his Wednesday news conference. "And they did, and you started writing about all that. So, we need to get back to that. They need to raise their level."
But Green-Haden is so intoxicating and compelling—the best vs. the best—it overshadows everything Sunday. With the way Horton plays, Haden doesn't figure to get all that much help over the top. For the most part it's a one-on-one delight.
And it has always been as advertised with both coming up with key plays to decide games. Haden set the tone early in Cleveland's 17-6 upset back on Sept. 29 with some physical play. Green swiped two games from Haden his rookie year with fourth-quarter touchdown catches. Last year when the Browns won in Cleveland, Green had 135 yards and Haden had an interception. When Haden didn't play in Cincinnati, Green's 10-yard touchdown catch gave the Bengals a double-digit lead they didn't relinquish.
The 6-4, 215-pound Green is hot. So hot that Hail Marys search him out. The only receiver in the NFL with 1,000 yards (1,013), the record books have to stay diligent. According to Elias, in their first 41 NFL games only one player in this century has caught more than Green's 227 passes and that is Anquan Boldin with 263. Green's 3,420 yards are behind only two men whose careers began in the post-1970 merger, Randy Moss (3542) and Boldin (3464).
"This team wouldn't be where it's been the last three years without A.J. Green," Bengals wide receiver Andrew Hawkins says so succinctly.
The 5-11, 190-pound Haden is also blistering as he comes of age in his fourth season. He has gone against receivers with a combined nine Pro Bowl appearances this year and held them to 15 catches, 141 yards and no touchdowns. And his matchup with Green last Sept. 29 in Cleveland is where this game starts.
Haden held Green to 51 yards on seven catches despite 15 targets and the game's defining moment came early, when Haden body-slammed him after a short gain and stood over Green as if he'd won the world heavyweight title. Green won't say it got to him, but he admitted the next week his body language that reeked of frustration bothered him more than anything as he watched the tape.
"It wasn't my best game; a lot of out of character stuff," Green says. "I can't get frustrated like that ever. I'm just looking forward to getting better every week and having a better outcome."
Green isn't going to get into the takedown.
"It doesn't matter. All I do is go out there and play my game," he says. "Their whole defense does that. That's the character of their defense."
Kind of in your face?
If Haden is the Chad Johnson in this rivalry, the boisterous, expressive extrovert, then Green is, well, A.J. Green. Hawkins, who knows him better than most, knows his friend burns just as well.
"A.J. doesn't do a lot of talking. I think the legendary players don't," Hawkins says. "But he has goals. He doesn't have to go out and say it in the media. He doesn't talk a lot of junk to opposing DBs or make a lot of headlines. He knows what he wants to do. He has that tunnel vision. It's special to watch.
"These are two guys with laser-like vision; it's fun to watch. He shows emotion. He gets mad. But one of his strong points is being able to stay even keel after big games, after bad games. Being able to flush bad plays and not so great games and move on."
Bengals tight end Alex Smith has had a special seat in the rivalry as a member of the Browns the past three seasons. Here's how he sees it:
"(Haden) is extremely athletic. Great ball skills. Fast. He's physical. He's not the biggest guy. He plays a lot bigger than he is."
But Smith is not so sure what makes Green so good:
"I'm still trying to figure that out. I haven't seen too many guys like him. The way he plays the ball in the air. His speed is unparalleled with the ball in the air. The way he adjusts to the ball in the air. He has all the intangibles and to see it every day, it's unbelievable."
That's the word most commonly associated with Green in these parts: unbelievable. And Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham has seen them all. He played with the incomparable Isaac Curtis and Pro Bowler Cris Collinsworth and he called the games of Chad Johnson and Eddie Brown.
"As good as I've seen. The best quality of any receiver this franchise has had, he has the best quality of all of them," Lapham says. "He can run routes as well as anybody. His elevation is as good as anybody. His size and catching radius is the best I've seen at the receiver position. His catching zone is enormous."
But Green is the first guy to say there are things he needs to improve. And you can hear Marvin Lewis pushing him.
"He's got a lot more in him. We need him to keep playing better and better and better and better," Lewis said. "He's, if not our best player, one of our best players. He's got to play great. We've got to keep pushing him to play great. When it is not his day, the other guys have got to play even better."
He's got the big things. Hidden in those NFL-leading 1,013 yards are 17 third-down catches, tied for sixth in the league. A total of 68 percent of his catches are first downs.
It is the little things, Green says, and the little numbers suggest he's right. He's tied for second in the league with eight drops, according to Pro Football Focus. He's 23rd in the NFL with percentage of targets caught. Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson are right above him tied for 21st.
(Haden, by the way, is ranked 25th among cornerbacks giving up targets.)
"Finishing off the tip of my routes," Green says as an example.
And Lapham can be heard on the broadcasts urging Green to finish his routes.
"Sometimes," Lapham says. "He's said it. He just can't have lapse plays. If he stays on point, no one is better. He's such a great player that he is one of these guys that is going to get his yards no matter what. What he needs is the other guys around him to step up."
Odds are, Green is going to step up.
"Does he play incredible every week?" Hawkins asks. "No. But darn near."