The Bengals take their show on the road for the second straight week as they travel to Cleveland to face the winless Browns. Cincinnati (2-1) will be looking for their 9th straight division victory, which would be a new record for consecutive AFC North wins. A victory also helps them keep pace with the Steelers, who will play host to the Baltimore Ravens in another AFC North blood feud.
The Browns are trying to avoid going 0-4 for the second consecutive season. Though they do appear to be improved over this stage last year, there are still evident weaknesses on the club for Cincinnati to exploit. Cleveland is allowing over 122 yards per game on the ground, so this could be a break-out game opportunity for Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott. This may also provide an opportunity for Carson Palmer to right himself and the passing game. Number 9 usually plays well versus the Browns, and with a strong running presence, play action passes to T.O. and Chad Ochocinco should be in order.
As for the Browns, they’ll be facing a very stingy and opportunistic looking Bengals defense. However, they certainly look much better on offense, particularly in running the football. RB Payton Hillis, a forgotten man in Denver, eviscerated the Ravens tough defense for 144 yards last week. He’s a big, bruising back with surprising hands and agility. The Bengals must be wary of Hillis’ potential. TE Ben Watson has proven to be an excellent free agency addition for the Brownies, as has QB Seneca Wallace, who’s perhaps playing the best football of his career. Their other offseason QB acquisition, Jake Delhomme, has been slowed by an ankle injury but may start. Mike Zimmer will have to have his defense prepared for either guy.
And then there’s the always-frightening Joshua Cribbs to worry about.
It would be a colossal mistake for the Bengals to take these Brownies lightly. They went toe-to-toe with Baltimore on the road last week and were competitive throughout. Their other losses, to Tampa Bay and Kansas City, were slugfests with the other guy getting in the last shot. If the Bengals can play smart football, they should be able to win the game, but if they get careless with the ball, tackle poorly on defense, or get sloppy with penalties, the Browns can and will steal it. A desperate 0-3 team will play with reckless abandon, and should not be underestimated.
However, this is a team the Bengals know well, and traditionally play well against. They are the better team in virtually every statistical category, and have fewer question marks. The offense should be able to improve this week, and if the defense continues to play the way they have the last two weeks, the Browns offense will struggle.
Here are some things to look for in the game:
- Discipline: The Bengals must be disciplined on offense to avoid penalties and slowing drives. They must be disciplined on defense in playing the proper gaps in the run game and form tackling well, and they must remain disciplined in the kicking game to deny Cribbs opportunities to get Cleveland cheap scores or good field position.
- Power Football: Both teams will want to jam the ball down the opponent’s throat. While Cincy has a solid run defense, Browns coach Eric Mangini has to like his chances with bulldozer Payton Hillis, especially after what Hillis did to Baltimore. The Bengals, meanwhile, will want to exert their will with Cedric Benson primarily and Bernard Scott secondarily. Whichever team is more successful will have the best shot at winning this game.
- Turnovers: The Bengals have been very lucky the last two weeks with turnovers. They had none versus Baltimore, and Palmer’s two interceptions against Carolina weren’t damaging. Meanwhile, during the same stretch the defense collected 8 turnovers, helping the anemic offense with short fields and longer time of possession. The Bengals can extend this streak Sunday, but they must be careful with the ball.
- Whither Batman & Robin?: At some point these guys have got to show off their God-given talents and show what they can be. Chad sliced up New England’s secondary in week one, but both Ocho and T.O. have been well contained overall. We’ve been waiting for the dynamic duo for three weeks now. Will we finally see it Sunday?
Prediction: I see the Browns being very game, and putting another scare in the Bengals. But Carson Palmer should look better with another week to work on things with his receivers, and they should be able to run the ball effectively. Hillis will not sneak up on the Bengals the way he did to the Ravens. Bengals 23, Browns 16