Posted: 11:20 p.m.
Never mind that the running game is now at 3.7 yards per pop, the offense had the ball for just seven series Saturday night, there have been three different No. 3 receivers, and there have been some key dropped passes along the way.
But as usual, there was quarterback Carson Palmer taking the hit himself Wednesday.
"There are a number of reasons why offenses struggle. The first reason that I always point to is the quarterback," Palmer said. "It's the quarterback's job to make sure everybody's running the right route, to make sure everybody's blocking the right guy, and to get it to the right guy. So it always needs to fall on the quarterback, and it does here. I take all the blame for every struggle we've had because I play quarterback here, and I haven't played well enough to get us in winning situations and win games when it comes down to it."
Except for the brutal conditions in Pittsburgh, Palmer has played well in the AFC North games. Three of his four triple-digit passer ratings have been in the North, where his numbers are nine touchdowns vs. two picks. Of course, six of those TDs and both interceptions came against the Browns, but they'll take it.
"I'm fine," Palmer said of the buzz. "Don't worry about me."
Marvin Lewis takes pride in the Bengals' success in the division during his five seasons, and he reminded people Wednesday, "We've won a lot games in the division." A loss Sunday would mean his second losing season in the North while a win makes them 3-3 as he heads into his 30th division game.
Starting with a home game against the Browns on Nov. 28, 2004 until last season's regular-season finale loss to the Steelers, the Bengals won 11 out of 13 North games. Now they've dropped four of the last six. Lewis' overall North record is 16-13.
The word has been passed.
"They'll be coming in here with their hats and we don't want them to put them on here," said wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, referring to the Browns' clinching a playoff berth with a victory and the obligatory ball caps.
TRASH COMPACTOR: Shaun Smith is picking up where left off when he was wearing a Bengals jersey the past two and a half seasons.
And now that he's started eight of the last nine games for the first-place Cleveland Browns at nose tackle and left end, he just can't help himself as he goes to the building where he wasn't thought of as more than a rotational player.
On the Browns locker room: "I think we've got better chemistry here. There are no egos. You don't have people calling for the ball," Smith said earlier this week. "You don't see that with Braylon Edwards and our quarterback. Nobody here thinks they're better than anybody else."
On deciding against sending a special delivery like the Pepto Bismol bottles Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson sent to the Browns secondary a few years ago: "I was going to send Levi (Jones) some poker chips, Willie Anderson a wrapper from Wendy's, and Chad a pacifier. But I don't want Romeo (Crennel) to get mad at me. I'm more of a professional now. I think that happens when you've been in the league a few years."
On playing an average of 42 snaps a game in Cleveland after not getting 20 per game in Cincinnati last season: "They didn't give me a fair chance. They don't give the young guys a chance. Prime example. Look at Sam Adams. He'd always miss practice. I was always intact except for the three games I was inactive."
Those three games were the last three of the season. The Bengals lost them all, but it indicated they didn't think Smith was better than Jonathan Fanene, a third-year player this season getting more and more time as the games go by.
The Bengals basically replaced Smith in the rotation with 10-year veteran free agent Michael Myers, a guy that came in with 64 NFL starts and has 39 tackles and a sack. Smith has 50 tackles and two sacks.
Smith does proudly point to the game in which he played his most snaps as a Bengal, the 38-31 win over the Steelers in '05 in which Cincinnati held Pittsburgh to 95 yards rushing.
Still, the Bengals were shocked when the Browns offered him $2 million per year for four years in restricted free agency with a $2.5 million bonus and the Bengals quickly chose not to match it. Smith may be playing, but the Browns are also 28th against the rush and last in the league in defense, numbers worse than the Bengals.
"He always says that. He says that to get himself motivated," said defensive tackle John Thornton. "He says they didn't give him a chance in New Orleans, Dallas and wherever else he's been."
Actually, Thornton and Smith are good friends. They text two or three times a week. So are free safety Madieu Williams and Smith. They talk twice a week. So are Smith and virtually anybody else in the locker room. He's always talking to somebody. And he'll be yapping Sunday.
"Yeah. All game long. It looks like he'll be in there a lot more," said quarterback Carson Palmer. "I'm looking forward to talking to him ... anything can come out of his mouth. A lot of stuff I probably can't repeat in here, but who knows what he's going to be saying."
Smith figures he played about 15 snaps in that first game before the injuries hit. He'll be looking for No. 84.
"I talk to T.J. all the time. He's my man. I'm hoping he makes the Pro Bowl," said Smith of wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and his wish has been granted.
So, they're treating his trash just like it was when it was here.
Not very seriously.
"Shaun is wrong. He doesn't know anything about that and I've told him that," Houshmandzadeh said. "Everyone on this team gets along. It's just that losing brings out the emotions. Go back to last year when (Browns receiver) Braylon Edwards was going off on the sidelines. Because they were losing."
No one is surprised that the trash is on the street with Smith in the house.
"He'll have something to say whether it's valid or not," Williams said. "He's definitely missed around here. His locker-room presence is missed. He's a good guy and I'm not talking about him just as a football player but as a guy. He makes you laugh, but he's very sensible, down-to-earth, and a family man."
Thornton says Smith is one of those guys who asks questions and listens to the answers and Thornton gives him tips about opposing teams. Not this week, of course, but Thornton will call Smith next week to brush him up on the 49ers.
"He's just a good friend," Thornton said. "He's doing well up there. Our offensive guys won't be surprised from anything they hear from him."
The 6-2, 325-pound Smith wasn't supposed to start. He was supposed to be nose tackle Ted Washington's understudy while learning the 3-4. But with Orpheus Roye limping with a knee injury, Smith then had to learn left end. Now that Washington is on injured reserve, Smith is getting plenty of snaps.
"When Shaun first came in, he had to learn our system and understand how we do things," Crennel said. "After he got that down and started being productive, we get a guy hurt and have to move him to another position and he has to learn that position a little bit. But he's got both of them down now and he's playing productively and he's able to make some plays on the football."
Smith, who tied for the team lead with eight tackles last month in the 22-0 win over Miami, says the biggest adjustment in playing end is the two-gap responsibility and Crennel admitted "I had some concerns when we put him out there. But he does have some explosion, and he will compete and he's been able to hold his own."
The Bengals would probably agree but conclude that's not worth $2 million per year. But they know Smith will get his money's worth in words Sunday.
Isn't it always the way? Smith goes up against one of the quietest guys on the team in right tackle Stacy Andrews.
"I won't say anything, but he'll be talking to everybody. He'll be talking to Shayne (Graham) on field goals," Andrews said. "I know what he's like from practice. I'm used to it. I just block it out."