The Cincinnati Bengals, fresh off of a two-game winning streak, invade Cleveland this week to take on the Browns, who have stumbled from the gate to an 0-3 start. The Bengals are about where one would expect them to be after three games, while the Browns had hoped to pick up one or two wins by now. Close losses are still losses, and moral victories might matter in Little League baseball, but not in professional football.
But the nature of the in-state rivalry between these two teams always brings extra excitement and meaning to the contests, and there have been some wild affairs in past years, as well as some games that either launched playoff runs or surprised by their very wildness.
To keep up our spirits, let's have a look back at five of the most memorable Bengals-Browns games in the past forty years, and with the look back, let's send a wish and a hope that a new and exciting memory can maybe be made this coming weekend at Cleveland Browns Stadium.
# 5 -- October 11, 1970 -- at Cleveland 30-Cincinnati 27
This was the first of the 73 games these two teams have played against each other, and came to pass when the Browns agreed to move to the AFC -- along with the Baltimore Colts and the Pittsburgh Steelers -- from the NFL to balance the conferences in this first year of the merger between the now-defunct AFL and the NFL.
It was also the Browns versus their ex-coach, Paul Brown, for the first time -- can we say "extra special" for so many reasons?
The Bengals drew first blood on a Horst Muhlmann field goal in the opening quarter and when Jess Phillips added a short touchdown run, the Browns were down 10-0 to their downstate cousins. The Browns' defense answered with a safety, when Cincinnati quarterback Virgil Carter was sacked in the end zone, and the first fifteen minutes ended with the Bengals up by eight.
The Browns edged closer in the second quarter on a Leroy Kelly 3-yard TD run, but the Bengals' defense struck in a big way when Royce Berry returned a fumble 58 yards for a score to restore the eight-point cushion at 17-9. Milt Morin then caught a short Bill Nelsen pass for a score and at halftime the visitors led 17-16. (By the way, in those days there was no two-point conversion.)
The only scoring in the third quarter was on a short Muhlmann field goal, and going into the last 15 minutes the Bengals led by four, setting the stage for an exciting finish.
Leroy Kelly and Bo Scott each scored on a one-yard run in the fourth and suddenly the Browns led 30-20, but Cincinnati was not finished. Speedy Thomas scored on a 16-yard pass from Carter, and the lead was only three.
The Browns held on, and the game, memorable for being high-scoring and more memorable for being A First, went into the record books as a Browns' triumph.
Cleveland was expected to cruise to a title in that first year in the new Central Division, and the victory over Cincinnati improved the Browns to 3-1, while the Bengals dropped to 1-3. Shockingly, though, the Browns stumbled through the rest of the season -- including losing the rematch in Cincinnati -- and finished 7-7 and in second place. And the Bengals? After beginning the season 1-6, Cincinnati pulled off a stunning seven-game winning streak and stole the division title at 8-6 to win the first Central championship before going on to lose in the playoffs to the Colts.
# 4 -- December 14, 1986 -- Cleveland 34-at Cincinnati 3
You look at the score and you think "Huh?" Ah, but it was the context of the game that day, and the startling way it began, that made this one memorable enough to make my list.
The Browns came into Cincinnati at 10-4, with the Bengals hot on their heels at 9-5. Cleveland was in the second year of the Bernie Kosar era and the Bengals, behind Boomer Esiason, were actually favored to win and complicate the Browns' playoff chances...until the game's first offensive play.
After receiving the kickoff and being pinned in their own territory, Bernie, rather than be conservative, launched a bomb down the right sidelines that took the Browns immediately inside the Cincinnati five, and the shell-shocked Bengals watched Kevin Mack score for a yard out to give the Browns a quick 7-0 lead.
The Bengals drew closer on a Jim Breech field goal, but Webster Slaughter scored on another Kosar bomb and the Browns led after one, 14-3.
Both defenses settled in in the second quarter, and the only scoring was a Mark Moseley field goal which gave the Browns a two-touchdown halftime lead. Yes, the Browns had stunned Cincinnati, but there were 30 minutes of football left, and nerves were still high, waiting for Esiason to bring the Bengals back.
It never happened.
Mack added another touchdown in the third quarter on a one-yard plunge, Slaughter recovered a fumble in the end zone for another score, and when Moseley tallied the only scoring of the fourth quarter with another field goal, the Browns had wrapped up a playoff spot with a convincing 34-3 beat-down.
The loss effectively knocked Cincinnati from the playoffs, as the New York Jets earned the AFC wild card at 11-5, a game ahead of the Bengals. And the Browns? We all know what happened next -- the thrilling double-overtime win over the Jets and the heartbreaking overtime loss to Denver.
But it was the nature of the way second-year quarterback Kosar attacked the seasoned Bengals, and the magnitude of the road game in the grand scheme of the standings, that made it stand out for me.
# 3 -- December 17, 1995 -- at Cleveland 26-Cincinnati 10
This is the win we would all like to forget, the win that meant zilch to the Browns as far as their standing went. In fact, the victory in the second-last game of the season improved Cleveland to a mere 5-10 on the year.
Then why should this game even be here?
It was the final Browns' game at the old Cleveland Stadium before they moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens, the final home game before a three-year wasteland of no NFL football in this city with such a rich tradition of excellence on the gridiron.
Public sentiment ran so high that no banners were allowed into the Stadium, but the fans expressed themselves in some very...interesting...ways as the day went on.
As for the game itself, the Browns gave their fans one last good time, one last good show, using two Vinny Testaverde TD passes in the second quarter to jump ahead 17-3 at halftime.
The Browns were able to extend the lead in the second half behind three Matt Stover field goals and led 26-3 before Cincinnati scored the last points in the history of the Stadium on an Eric Bieniemy one-yard run and Jim Breech extra-point to make the final Browns 26-Bengals 10.
It was all over but for the tears, as many of the Browns lingered on the field long after the game, visiting the Dawg Pound, touching hands and hugging the fans, who in their turn helped themselves to seats and other souvenirs of the occasion. It didn't much matter if -- and how much -- damage was done, for it was quite clear that there would be no more professional sports in the ancient facility, as the Browns were leaving and the Indians had already relocated to Jacobs Field.
There was a time when it seemed as if this might be the last Browns-Bengals game of all-time, but four years later Cleveland was back, and the "new" Browns have been involved in the two games which I consider to be the leader and the runner-up on my list.
# 2 -- November 28, 2004 -- at Cincinnati 58-Cleveland 48
What if one mediocre team and one bad one had to play on "any given Sunday" and a Classic broke out?
It would look like this:
The 3-7 Browns went south to take on the 4-6 Bengals and what happened was the second-highest scoring game in NFL history, an incredible affair in which 106 points lit up the scoreboard at Paul Brown Stadium.
To recap all the scoring would bloat this column considerably. Some noteworthy points along the way in this incredible journey are to be pointed out, however:
The Bengals jumped to a 27-13 halftime lead behind three Carson Palmer TD passes, while Kelly Holcomb had one for the Browns. Four field goals -- two from each side -- had the point total resting at 40 at the intermission.
Things were just heating up.
In the third quarter Holcomb added; not one, not two, but three touchdown strikes, while Palmer tossed another, which, parlayed with a Rudi Johnson TD run, allowed the Bengals to remain in the lead 41-34 entering the final quarter.
Shayne Graham extended the lead to ten with a field goal, but the Browns were not done. William Green scored on a one-yard touchdown run and Holcomb's fifth TD pass of the day, a one-yarder to Steve Heiden, gave the Browns an incredible 48-44 lead.
Ah but back came the Bengals. Another Johnson TD run put Cincinnati back up, 51-48, and to cap things off, Deltha O'Neal returned an errant toss 31 yards to give the Bengals their final margin of victory at 58-48.
Some numbers? For the Browns: Kelly Holcomb 30-39 with five touchdown passes (tying a team record) and two interceptions to go with 413 yards through the air; for Cincinnati: Palmer, four TDs and three picks, and Rudi Johnson with 202 yards on the ground to go with two scores.
The Browns would finish at 4-12, the Bengals 8-8. Neither team sniffed a playoff spot. But for one amazing day, the eyes of the football world were drawn to one incredible outburst.
# 1 -- September 16, 2007 -- at Cleveland 51-Cincinnati 45
A crushing 34-7 loss at home to the Steelers in the season opener had Browns' fans yawning and expecting yet another drab season for the "new" Browns, who had graced Cleveland only once with a playoff spot since 1999.
Cincinnati came to town for the second game of the year fresh off of a victory over the "old" Browns, and there was no reason not to expect the Bengals to complete an odd "double play" of victories over Cleveland-past and Cleveland-present.
Derek Anderson had other ideas.
Cincinnati jumped out to an early 7-0 lead on a Rudi Johnson catch from Carson Palmer, but the Browns kept things close, getting two field goals from Phil Dawson to close the gap to 7-6 after one quarter.
Nothing spectacular so far.
Both passing games exploded in the second quarter. Anderson hit Joe Jurevicius twice and connected with Kellen Winslow Jr. on another to more than match Palmer's two strikes for the Bengals, and the Browns headed to halftime up 27-21 in an energized Cleveland Browns Stadium.
The fireworks continued in the second half.
Cincinnati put up 17 more points of their own in the third quarter while the Browns added two touchdowns -- one on a Braylon Edwards 34-yarder and another on a 66-yard gallop for a score from Jamal Lewis. But Palmer's second toss of the quarter drew the Bengals to within 41-38 entering the final fifteen minutes.
Edwards added a 37-yard TD catch in the fourth, and a Dawson field goal gave the Browns a 51-38 lead. Then here came Palmer, closing the gap to six with his sixth touchdown pass of the day.
The Browns hung on to win by a 51-45 count in what had become the eighth-highest scoring game in league history. Jamal Lewis torched the Bengals for 216 yards on the ground, far offsetting Rudi Johnson's 118 for Cincinnati.
Anderson's five touchdowns were a springboard for what almost became a magical season for the Browns, but unfortunately, with their playoff destiny squarely in their hands when they faced the Bengals in the second-to-last game, Cincinnati intecepted Anderson four times in a deflating 19-14 Browns' loss.
To their credit the Browns came back to win their final game to finish with their best record of the expansion era at 10-6, but when the Colts rested just about everyone, and only played Peyton Manning minimally in the last game of the season against Tennessee, the Titans beat Indianapolis and claimed the last playoff spot, and all the Browns could do was sit and watch on television.
Why then does this 96-point game outweigh the 106-point game between the same teams? Context, plain and simple. Another dreary and dismal-looking Browns' season was transformed in one afternoon into something that ended up being every bit as exciting as many of the Glory Years of the original Browns.
It is what we hope to see every time the Browns take the field.
Who knows if such an afternoon in October of 2010 could not even now turn around a season that is looking grimmer than grim.