By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) – Buckeye State bragging rights, along with first place in
the tough AFC North, will be on the line Thursday night when the surprising
Cleveland Browns make the short trip down I-71 to Cincinnati.
The AFC North is the only division in football in which all four teams are
over .500. The Bengals lead in the loss column with a 5-2-1 mark while the
red-hot Steelers are 6-3. Cleveland is a notch back at 5-3 and highly-regarded
Baltimore is in the cellar with a 5-4 mark.
Cincinnati enters Week 10 looking for its third consecutive victory following
a 33-23 win against hapless Jacksonville. Rookie running back Jeremy Hill
rushed for a career-high 154 yards two touchdowns in place of injured starter
Giovani Bernard in the triumph, becoming just the second Bengals rookie (Corey
Dillon, 1997 vs. Tennessee) to pile up at least 150 rushing yards and two
rushing touchdowns in a game.
“He played well. I thought he came and answered,” quarterback Andy Dalton said
of Hill. “We feel like we are doing some good things. We just have to keep
A.J. Green, who missed the previous three games with a toe injury, returned to
catch three passes for 44 yards and a score, and Mohamed Sanu finished with a
touchdown and 95 yards on four grabs for Cincinnati, which is an imposing
13-0-1 in its last 14 home games.
Dalton threw for 233 yards on 19-of-31 attempts with the two touchdowns but
also was responsible for two interceptions.
“We’re a savvy group and we overcame some adversity against the Jaguars to
win,” said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis. “We’ll take a look at it, and get
everything fixed because we have a tough division game on Thursday. We are
definitely looking forward to Thursday night.”
Usually the Browns aren’t first on the list for tough division games but
things have changed this season under first-year coach Mike Pettine and
quarterback Brian Hoyer, who has fought off competition from rookie first-
round pick Johnny Manziel by winning football games.
Cleveland enters Thursday night with two consecutive victories, the latest of
which was a 22-17 win over Tampa Bay.
Hoyer threw two interceptions for the first time this season against the
Bucs, but his two second-half touchdowns made up for it and proved to be the
Hoyer passed for a season-high 300 yards on 21-of-34 efficiency for the
Browns, who entered November above .500 for the first time since 2007.
Rookies Terrance West and Taylor Gabriel each had a touchdown grab as
Cleveland won for the fourth time in five weeks and surpassed its entire win
total from the 2013 season.
“I’m proud of the mental toughness we showed to find a way to win it,” said
Pettine. “Not the prettiest win, but we’ll take it.”
Hoyer, a Cleveland-area native, improved to 8-3 as the starter of the Browns.
The Bengals lead the all-time series by a 43-38 margin and have won five of
the past seven matchups. Cincinnati is also 5-4 in Thursday games while the
Browns are under water on short weeks at 4-9.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The numbers do not favor Cleveland is this one. Not only are the Bengals
13-0-1 in their past 14 regular-season home games, the Browns, who haven’t
reached the postseason since 2002, have dropped 17 consecutive road division
Cleveland has dropped five in a row against the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium
but its last AFC North triumph away from the Forest City did come in Cincy, a
20-12 win on Sept. 28, 2008.
“They’re a good team, and one hallmark of good teams is that they win at
home,” Browns Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas said.
In Hoyer’s 11 starts with Cleveland, he has thrown for 2,629 passing yards
and 15 touchdowns with a 88.2 passer rating. In his only career start against
Cincinnati last season, the Michigan State product passed for 269 yards with
two touchdowns and a 103.9 passer rating during a 17-6 Browns win.
To help Hoyer the Browns badly need to rediscover a rushing game that has gone
AWOL since Pro Bowl center Alex Mack was lost for the season to a broken
fibula back on Oct. 12.
With Mack in the lineup Cleveland had been averaging 146.4 rushing yards per
game and since he’s been gone, the team has a total of 158 on the ground in
three games, a paltry 52.7 average.
Veteran Ben Tate has particularly struggled without Mack paving the way,
managing just 1.6 yards per rush. Right guard John Greco replaced Mack at
first before moving back to his natural position in favor of waiver-pickup
Nick McDonald, who struggled mightily against Tampa Bay star defensive tackle
Things won’t get much easier this week because the Bengals have Geno Atkins on
the interior, one of the best three-techniques in all of football.
Despite that Pettine understands, he and his team have to try to establish a
“We’re not going to abandon our approach,” the coach said. “We feel over time
we’ll get better up front, but we took a step backwards and we’re trying to
regain that ground.”
Hoyer’s counterpart, Dalton, has really excelled at home, passing for 3,385
yards with 26 touchdowns and a 95.4 passer rating in the team’s current 13-0-1
run as the host.
Injuries at the skills positions have hurt Cincinnati at times but Green’s
return to the lineup last week will continue to loosen up things underneath.
Bernard, who is dealing with hip and shoulder issues, is expected to sit again
on the short week, opening the door for Hill, who is now third among rookies
with 349 rushing yards after his impressive performance in Week 9. He also
leads all freshman with five rushing touchdowns.
For the Browns to win the game, they’ll have to win the turnover battle and
safety Tashaun Gipson is leading the NFL with six interceptions. Gipson also
leads the league with 11 interceptions since the beginning of 2013 and
spearheads a unit that has forced 13 takeaways this season and a solid plus-
six turnover differential.
“It’s going to be exciting,” said Gipson. “It’s going to be really exciting to
be playing on Thursday night, showing everyone what the new Cleveland Browns
Bengals wide receiver Greg Little, an ex-Brown, also added intrigue to the
contest this week by taking aim at his old club. Little, a third-round pick in
2011, led the Browns in receiving two years ago but was let go before this
“Everything about this game is personal to me. I’m going to go out and lay it
on the line,” Little said. “They cut me. They said that I wasn’t good enough
to play on their team. That’s about all I need.”
Little also took aim at Pettine.
“I didn’t get along with Pettine. He doesn’t talk to any of his players,”
Little said. “You’ll walk past him in the hallway and he won’t even speak to
you. To have that type of relationship with a coach is kind of odd. I can’t
say I’m going to go out and lay it on the line for a guy that won’t even speak
to me if we’re the only two people in the hallway.”
Pettine didn’t take the bait.
“I didn’t get to know Greg very well and it’s unfortunate.” he said. “I pride
myself on my communication with the team and I know it’s so much more than an
Xs and Os business. It’s a people’s business. The guys that I’ve coached and
who have been around me long enough, I think they know what I stand for and
know what I’m about.”
The last time the Browns and Bengals tangled for first place this late in the
season, it was nearly 30 years ago (Week 15, 1986) so obviously this is a big
deal in the Buckeye State.
“If we want to win the AFC North, we’re going to have to beat Cincinnati and
this is our first opportunity,” Thomas said. “The stage is a little bit bigger
with the Thursday night game. You’re the only game on TV. This will be the
best opponent we’ve played in a few games so it will certainly be a good
Figure on the Browns coming up short this time. Trends are trends for a reason
and it’s hard to ignore the Bengals 13-0-1 home run, along with Cleveland’s
17-game road losing streak in the division.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Bengals 23, Browns 17