A.J. Green skies for the winning TD in Tampa last month during one of the hottest Bengals receiving streaks in history.
BENGALS WR A.J. GREEN VS. BROWNS WR JOE HADEN
The matchup is so good, so powerful, so decisive that Chad Johnson is talking about going to Sunday's game in Cleveland (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19) to see if Green can continue the assault on the NFL and his records.
Could there be two players with more different demeanors? Johnson changed his name. Green barely changes expression. But Green is starting to lighten up as he lights it up. Taking the mask off. Sensing his fire is spreading to his mates as they try to gather every resource they can muster in one of the tightest AFC playoff races of all time.
Johnson likes what he sees.
"You can pick your poison," Johnson says this week. "You can go with the quiet assassin or the funny, entertaining guy who told you what he was going to do and was still able to go out and do it. I still don't think people understand how hard that is.
"I like it. It's not his thing, but I like it. He doesn't need it because he's just fine without it. But to see that energy and everyone else feeding off that energy…Everyone else is going to feed off seeing A.J. wake up like that."
How good is Green?
The man who channeled Muhammad Ali a decade ago by calling himself the best in the league says he's no longer the best in Bengals history.
"I'll go with A.J.," says Johnson when asked if No. 85 or No. 18 is better "He can go short, he can go long. He's impossible to stop. And the way they're so creative in using him on the outside and in the slot, whenever Andy (Dalton) wants to go to him, he can go to him. It's scary."
In the last month, no one has had a better four receiving games in Bengals history of Green's 529 yards than Chad Javon Johnson.
He did it three times in that stretch from Oct. 29, 2006 to Nov. 30, 2006 during that season he became the only Bengal to lead the NFL in receiving yards with 1,369 on 664, 604, and 559. After the second greatest game in club history last Sunday with 224 yards, Green is sitting on 529 in his last four for his second-best month since he put up 549 last year from Oct. 20-Nov. 10.
"I'm not a big guy. He's a lot stronger than me if you see him after the catch…He brings a different type of YAC, especially to the receiver position," Johnson says. "He's 20 times better than me on the deep ball. He has the ability to jump up and snatch the ball out of the air. That was one of the weaker points of my game."
This is not a haphazard observation from an also-ran. Like he'll tell you now, "Forget the antics." Johnson is the only man to lead the AFC in receiving yards four straight seasons and he did it by culling enough film on defensive backs that he would prepare for that week's opponent with a library of what that DB did the previous five weeks.
He's watching Green every week now, frustrated with the blandness of the TV copy and looking for some coaches' film. The one thing he's noticed beyond the catches is that Green is playing with an Ocho-type passion on his sleeve. Yes, he did see early in last Sunday's game against Pittsburgh after safety Troy Polamalu drilled him into the sidelines that Green jumped up back in Polamalu's face and ran back to the huddle.
Johnson, who is to tweeting what Arnold Palmer is to golf after bringing it to the masses half a decade ago, fired out one after another play Sunday.
"How about this? Did you see when caught the hitch early in the game? And he slammed the ball?" Johnson asks. "I tweeted it. When he showed that kind of enthusiasm, it's going to be a long day. It was weird to me because he's such a quiet guy and doesn't show that much enthusiasm. He just gives the ball back to the official. But you can tell, I don't know what it was, but you could tell. Something was up."
What is up is Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. Green will tell you that Green has challenged him like no one has challenged him in his four NFL seasons. Jackson has told Green flat-out on occasion, "A.J., that's not good enough," or "We need the great A.J., not just the good A.J."
Even after Wednesday's practice.
"He's done some really good things, but I think there's more in there. I really do," Jackson said. "He's just scratching the surface of what he can be. My challenge to him is you've got to do that, but do it better. That's just the way it's got to be.
"Score more touchdowns, break more touchdowns, make more catches. He just can. We have to. We've got to have one more point than the other team. We didn't have that this past week. We didn't do our job good enough.
Johnson gets it because this is the same Hue Jackson that that cajoled, coaxed, and conned him to the Pro Bowl from '04-'06 as the Bengals wide receivers coach. "That ain't you," Jackson would hiss and seethe at the opportune moments.
"Always. Big time," Johnson says. "Certain games, certain situations, Hue would get in my ear. One of the problems I would have is I would play down to the competition instead of dominating who was in front of me. I got lackadaisical. He would get on me, wake me up."
This week finds the 6-4, 212-pound Green matched up against his arch nemesis, the 5-11, 190-pound Haden. Last month, according to profootballfocus.com, Haden held Green to three catches on six targets for just 29 yards.
In the game before that, the Bengals' 41-20 victory last season at Paul Brown Stadium, Green had just two catches for seven yards and Haden held him to one catch for three yards while returning a touchdown for an interception on a pass that was headed to Green.
In Cleveland's 17-6 victory over the Bengals earlier last season, Haden held him to five catches on10 targets for 41 yards and no touchdowns and stood over him after one breakup like Ali over Liston. When Green had 135 yards against Cleveland in 2012, it was in a loss and he got behind Haden for a 57-yard touchdown pass late in a game the Bengals trailed big. In the one game Haden has missed, Green caught seven balls for 58 yards, but had a big TD in a one-score win. As a rookie, Green strafed the second-year Haden in both games with long balls that won each in the fourth quarter.
According to PFF, in the six games Green and Haden have gone at it, Haden has covered him on 31 targets and given up 16 catches for 300 yards and more than 18 yards per catch. But he's only allowed him two TDs and minimal yards after catch.
Clearly this isn't the Green of Nov. 6. That was just his second game back after missing to what amounted to four games with his big toe injury. After last Sunday's effort left him 36 yards shy of Johnson's club record for yards in a game, he said it was the best he's felt since training camp.
Haden's play against Green is the linchpin of any Browns game plan against the Bengals. Browns head coach Mike Pettine, a Rex Ryan disciple, flashed it last month at PBS, crowding the box with eight players and manning up on the outside. Haden isn't the only guy back there. The Browns and Bengals have been 1-2 in defensive passer rating much of the year and PFF ranks the Browns' secondary No. 1 in the NFL.
"They play a lot of man coverage," Dalton says. "They press you and there are a lot of one-on-ones. I think it comes down to beating one-on-ones and man coverage. Joe's done some good things, he follows A.J. But there are times A.J. has gotten him, too. It's been a good matchup."
Johnson puts Haden among a select group of corners.
"Richard Sherman's great, but Joe is one of the traditional cover corners," he says. "The kind of guy who says 'I don't need any help,' and goes from side to side covering the best receiver. Joe, Patrick Peterson, Leon Hall. Sherman can do that, it's just those three have all the tools to be a shut-down corner."
Johnson has some advice for Green in this one-on-one battle that for once has been overshadowed by Johnny Football.
"You've got a taller A.J. and a quicker Joe Haden," Johnson says. "You just need small things to adjust. A.J.'s a long strider. If he can minimize his gait to make it look like he's going full speed when he's not, he can beat him every time. You have to use Joe's strengths against him. Don't play high. Play lower. Play down to his level."
Johnson loves the matchup. He loves Green and the way he's playing. He's checking into flights from Miami to Cleveland. No. 85 loves No. 18's developing flair. Maybe he can talk him into a TD dance.
"You can contain him," Johnson says, sounding like a decade ago, "but you can't stop him."
Haden is going to find out if he can do it three straight times, only this time it's smack in the middle of one of his hottest streaks.