With the Bengals headed north for the one Battle of Ohio (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) that doesn't involve focus groups and spin cycles, the Bengals.com media roundtable likes their chances Sunday against the winless Browns in what it characterizes as a brutally must game for the visitors.
A win can swing the Bengals into a playoff run and the Browns into oblivion. A loss can swing the Browns around and put the Bengals postseason hopes on notice.
The majority of the board sees a Bengals victory, but in a long twilight struggle against a desperate team knowing it had a shot for a win back on Sept. 16 in a Paul Brown Stadium game that got away from the Browns in the fourth quarter quicker than you can say "Andrew Hawkins" during a 34-27 loss.
Tony Grossi, the Browns analyst for Cleveland.com and ESPN 850 WKNR, is the lone dissenter this week, calling it for the home team. Sunday is the 29th birthday of Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden and Grossi has been covering Cleveland for about that long, but he's never seen the Browns lose 11 straight. He thinks it is due to end and says the return of cornerback Joe Haden from his month-long NFL suspension is going to inspire the defense to carry the day and force Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton to throw more than he wants.
But Clark Judge, one of CBSSports.com's senior NFL writers who has covered the NFL on both coasts, says it doesn't matter how the Bengals travel Sunday. Throw it or run it, it's going to be a Cincinnati victory because the Bengals simply have a better roster and are on the uptick.
Joe Reedy, the Northeast Ohio native who relentlessly covers the Bengals for The Cincinnati Enquirer, was a toddler the last time the Browns lost 11 straight. He thinks the kids are going to see more history because Weeden didn't see the pass rush he's going to get Sunday when he threw for 322 yards last month in Cincinnati.
Former Bengals safety Solomon Wilcots is analyzing the game for CBS and won't give a score ("I don't predict 'em, I just call 'em") but he says it's going to be a tight one and that the defenses are going to win it or lose it. He says the Bengals have the best trio of pass rushers in the NFL but their defense has to prove it can stop Browns rookie running back Trent Richardson.
Let's go around the table:
The Browns have got some key injuries. They're down three receivers and had to sign rookie Josh Cooper off the practice squad. He was Weeden's second-favorite target at Oklahoma State. Plus, I don't think one of their best defensive players, tackle Ahtyba Rubin, is going to play, and they've got a problem with starting cornerback Dimitri Patterson not playing.
They get Haden back, but with Patterson out now they have to put either rookie Trevin Wade or Buster Skrine in the slot. Skrine has hardly ever played there and in his first NFL game Wade got beat by Hawkins for that 50-yard touchdown catch.
But I think Haden coming back is going to give them a huge emotional lift. The Browns have been close. They got beat by the Eagles in the last minute, were in the game all the way in Cincinnati, and last week were up 14-0 and 17-7 on the Giants in New York and they had a third-and-one near the red zone.
For some reason that's when head coach Pat Shurmur took his best player, Richardson, off the field. Weeden ended up throwing an interception against a look that confused him and that turned into a TD. When Josh Cribbs fumbled the next kickoff, that was it. They've found a way to lose games while similar teams like St. Louis at 3-2 and the Vikings at 4-1 have found ways to win.
But the Browns are better than they were last month. Wide receiver Josh Gordon has emerged. He's kind of like Hawkins. Not as fast but a reliable guy that has nine catches in nine targets. It looks like they're finally going to bench Greg Little after all his drops. They've got a great player in Richardson who is leading them in rushing and receiving, but they have to use him more. Even without Haden they've played pretty good defense. They gave up 243 yards rushing to the Giants, but about half of them came when middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson came off the field with a concussion and he's expected to play this week. Rookie tackles Billy Winn and John Hughes are giving them a lot of good snaps in the middle.
THE EDGE: Browns, 18-17. I know it's a crazy score, but we've seen a lot of crazy scores in this series. The Browns have a lot of streaks that have to end at some point. They've not only lost 11 straight, but 12 straight in the division and four straight to the Bengals. I think it's going to be a defensive game and the Browns are going to force Dalton to throw more than he wants. With Haden back, that should ease a little bit of the problem they have in the slot. The Giants ran it on them, but the Bengals don't have an Ahmad Bradshaw. And I think the Browns have finally realized how much they have to use Richardson, ride their defense, and not let Weeden throw it so much.
I think it's going to be a tight game, but I don't see how the Browns can match up with the Bengals.
I love all the moves the Bengals have made ever since they took a franchise receiver and quarterback in the same draft last year and then traded a quarterback who was never going to play for them again for a first- and second-round pick.
Meanwhile, the Browns have been an expansion team every three years. They keep changing it over and haven't been patient enough to stick with anything, especially at quarterback. Is Colt McCoy a bad quarterback? I don't know. We never had time to find out.
I think the Bengals are on the move and are a solid team that is trying to take the next step. That was a bad loss against Miami but, guess what? That happens in the NFL. I think San Francisco is the best team in the NFL and I don't think that changes because they got beat by Minnesota.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 27-17. My one gripe with the Browns is they've never surrounded their quarterbacks with any kind of receivers. I think Weeden can be a good quarterback, but you look up again and there's a pass bouncing the other way off of Greg Little's hands. I know it's a division game, that it is always played tightly, but I don't think the Bengals have anything to worry about. They stop Richardson and make them one-dimensional and I'll take my chances. Now if the Bengals lose two straight in very winnable games after losing to Miami, then I think they have to step back and take a serious look at their club to see what's wrong. But I don't see that happening.
This kind of reminds me of the 2010 game that the Browns won, coming down to big plays and running the ball. I expect it to be the same kind of game it's been up there the last three years where it always goes right down to the wire.
The Bengals haven't been running the ball well and now they don't have Bernard Scott for the rest of the year. If they can't run the ball against a defense that gave up 243 yards on the ground against the Giants, that's a concern and I think they have to start looking at the waiver wire or a trade because that shows they need the change-of-pace guy. But I'm willing to give Brian Leonard and Cedric Peerman a shot for two games to see how it goes.
The Bengals did have a couple of sustained runs against the Browns in the last game and I think tight end Jermaine Gresham is a big key against the Browns linebackers. In his four games against them he's had three games with at least five catches and has been their leading receiver.
Haden did a good job against Green in those two games last year. Really, the only plays he gave up were big ones at the end of each game that won it.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 24-20. They've been kind of wild, close games up there since 2009 and I can see the same thing happening Sunday. In '09 the players basically talked Marvin out of going for the tie and Carson scrambled for 15 on fourth down to get the field goal. In 2010 he got sacked on fourth down to end it. Last year Andy got hurt and Bruce Gradkowski threw the winner to A.J. on a quick snap when the Browns defense wasn't ready. I think the Bengals respond after the Miami loss. The big thing with Weeden the last time and Tannehill last week is they had time to step up and make plays. I think the Bengals pass rush is upset about what happened against the Dolphins and they're going to give Weeden more pressure than he got last time.
It's going to be a lot closer game than it looks on paper. It always is. You know how it is with this series.
I think with Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson, the Bengals have the best trio of pass rushers in the league. Better than the Giants. I'll take Dunlap over Osi Umenyiora. He's bigger, has more range, and plays the run better.
And Geno Atkins? I'll take him over Justin Tuck. He leads all interior players with sacks. I'd take him over any interior player except Ndamukong Suh. How about that?
But I look at their 18 sacks that lead the league and I see that they have just one interception. That's not right. Pressure means picks. Look at Chicago. They also have 18 sacks, but they have 13 interceptions. Something's not right there.
I know Trent Richardson had a big day against them last time but let me tell you, he's a much better player than he was then. He missed most of training camp, so the first four games were his preseason. Now he's rounding into form. He's a very elusive back. Powerful. If (Bengals middle linebacker) Rey Maualuga doesn't play with discipline, he'll run for 200 yards. He could have run for 200 yards against the Giants if the game didn't get out of hand.
It's going to be a defensive game. Can the Browns stop Green? Can the Bengals stop Richardson? If it's going to be as windy as you say, I'll take Weeden throwing into the wind. On that score, Andy is closer to Jon Kitna than Carson Palmer. Now don't get that wrong. I think Dalton is a wonderful quarterback. He plays the position the way it is meant to be played. He's a winner. Accurate. Smart. A great game manager. But Weeden has a rifle. If there's a big wind, this guy can sling it.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It's about as big as it gets for the Bengals, thanks to last week's loss at home to a rookie head coach and rookie QB. A win Sunday puts them at 4-2 and sets up a Sunday night home game against the limping three-loss Steelers followed by a bye week and three home games in the next 30 days.
But a loss to the winless Browns and …
The paper keeps saying no. The Browns just don't have a rookie at QB, but a rooking running back, a rookie right tackle, a rookie defensive tackle and a rookie slot corner.
And the Browns are not only winless, but hurting. They're down three receivers, a starting corner and their best defensive tackle may not play. Plus, the Bengals are as healthy as they've been on defense and have three guys they didn't have when Weeden and Richardson had big days last month: Carlos Dunlap is at left end in the nickel working against rookie Mitchell Schwartz, cornerback Nate Clements is at safety, and rookie starting WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict won't be making his first appearance at outside linebacker like he was the last time the clubs met.
But that's on paper. Karma is something else. Cleveland's last AFC North win came in Cleveland two years and 10 days ago against a favored Bengals team. The last three Battle of Ohios in Cleveland have been decided by a combined 16 points in overtime or the last minutes.
The Browns have lost 11 straight for the first time since the days of Forrest Gregg, a future Super Bowl coach for the Bengals. Sunday is not only Weeden's birthday, but the last game before the NFL votes in new Browns owner Jimmy Haslam.
But at some point football has to bowl over karma. The one guy besides Richardson that can break open a game for the Browns is returner Josh Cribbs and the Bengals have a history of keeping him in check, and while Dalton can throw to a bevy of receivers, the Browns have had to activate undrafted rookie Josh Cooper off the practice squad.
Doesn't it always seem to come down to the run in this series? If the Bengals do to Richardson what they did to Maurice Jones-Drew and Reggie Bush the past two weeks and Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis does literally half of what the Giants' Ahmad Bradshaw did last week against Cleveland with 100 yards, that should decide it.
That would allow the Bengals to get in Weeden's face with the Browns one-dimensional while permitting Dalton and Green to get breathing room in the passing game. Those two factors ought to get them back to PB with a shot to try and get three wins up on the Steelers heading into the bye.
About as big as it gets.