(Sports Network) – Supremacy in the state of Ohio is once again up for grabs. That is, if either of the two teams going to Cincinnati this Sunday really wants it.
The host Bengals and visiting Cleveland Browns head into their annual meeting on the state’s southern border in the throes of disarray uncommon even for this recently woebegone rivalry.
The Browns stand just 5-8 in the AFC’s blue-collar North division, and though they’ve taken strides as evidenced by wins over New England and New Orleans earlier this season, some of the luster was removed with a desultory 13-6 loss at 3-10 Buffalo last week.
The defeat all but guaranteed another losing season for Cleveland, which finishes its campaign with home games against Pittsburgh and Baltimore and hasn’t won more than it’s lost since a surprise 10-6 run under Romeo Crennel in 2007.
Prior to that season, it was 2002 that the Browns last bettered .500, when they went 9-7 for Butch Davis.
They’ll make a run at 8-8 this year with rookie quarterback Colt McCoy, who’ll take the reins for the rest of the season after a Thursday pronouncement from Cleveland head coach Eric Mangini.
McCoy began the season third on the depth chart behind Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace, took over when both were shelved with ankle injuries, then missed several games with an ankle injury of his own.
Mangini made the call after Delhomme was 12-of-20 for 86 yards against Buffalo.
“I felt like [McCoy] earned this opportunity and I want to give it to him,” Mangini said. "I want to see how he continues to grow. This is by no stretch just throwing a young guy in for the sake of throwing a young guy in.
“If I didn’t think he could go out and lead us and be successful doing that, then I wouldn’t make this decision. But I do feel that way and I feel strongly about it.”
For the Bengals, its not nearly that simple.
Unbeaten in the division en route to an AFC North title and home playoff game last season, the Bengals have plunged into the abyss a year later, dropping 10 straight since beginning with two wins in their initial three games.
A 23-20 loss to Cleveland on Oct. 3 started the slide, and it’s since devolved into an average losing margin of more than a touchdown, just one win in six home dates for the year, and the predictable specter of wide receiver Terrell Owens pointing fingers.
“I think there’s underachieving from the top down,” Owens recently said. “You start with the owner, you start with the coaches. And obviously, we as players, we are a product of what the coaches are coaching us throughout the course of the week.”
Owens had one catch for 22 yards in last week’s 23-7 loss at Pittsburgh, but caught 10 balls for 222 yards and a touchdowns against the Browns in October.
He needs 17 yards to join Jerry Rice (14 seasons) and Randy Moss (10) as the only players with at least 10 seasons of 1,000 receiving yards, and is one touchdown catch shy of a ninth year with 10 scoring receptions.
“Of course, we have to go out there and play the game,” Owens said. “But in order for us to do what we’re allowed to do at the best of our abilities, the coaches have to put the players in the best position.”
Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis referenced Owens’ past — and perhaps his future — in responding to Owens’ comments.
“In this case, no one was willing to bring [Owens] aboard for a long time and then we ended up doing it late, so don’t hurt yourself in that situation as you go forward,” Lewis said in reference to the Bengals’ signing of the controversial receiver just before training camp. "There’s a lesson there [to be learned].
“Unfortunately, once we say something, we don’t get the chance to take it back. We try, but we don’t get to, and it’s too late sometimes.”
The Bengals own a 38-36 edge in their all-time series with the Browns, but Cleveland halted a string of three straight losses to its in-state rival with a 23-20 home decision back in Week 4. Cincinnati swept the 2009 season series, recording a 23-20 overtime victory in Cleveland and a 16-7 triumph at Paul Brown Stadium, but the Browns came through with a 20-12 road verdict in 2008. That win is Cleveland’s only one in its last six visits to Cincinnati.
Lewis is 10-5 against the Browns in his career. Mangini is 2-3 against both Lewis and the Bengals, including a 1-1 mark while at the helm of the New York Jets from 2006-08. Lewis and Mangini were both members of the Baltimore Ravens staff in 1996.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
The Browns are in the bottom tier of the league rankings in all offensive categories, averaging 18.1 points (29th overall), 296.3 total yards (29th) and 185.4 passing yards (27th) per game. Only in running the ball have they achieved a modicum of statistical success, having gained yards at a clip of 110.9 per game.
Cincinnati is middle-of-the-pack in stopping opposing quarterbacks, ranking 15th in the league with an average of 223.1 passing yards allowed per game. The team suffers elsewhere, though, ranking 28th in scoring defense (26.5 ppg), 21st in total yardage allowed (347.8 ypg) and 24th in run defense (124.8 ypg).
McCoy has an 80-plus passer rating in four of his five career starts. In the backfield, burly Peyton Hillis ran for 108 yards last week against Buffalo to become the third back in Browns history — joining Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly — to run for at least 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns in a season. He had 102 yards and scored once in the earlier meeting with the Bengals. Among the passing targets, tight end Benjamin Watson needs 62 receiving yards to surpass a career-high of 643 established in 2006. Fellow tight end Evan Moore had a touchdown catch in his last game against Cincinnati.
For the Bengals, rookie end Carlos Dunlap, the 54th overall pick in last April’s draft, has 3 1/2 sacks in his last three games. In the defensive backfield, cornerback Leon Hall has five career interceptions against the Browns, his most against any team.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
The Bengals reach a high watermark of 15th in the league with an average of 229.5 passing yards per week, but are no better than the bottom third elsewhere, having averaged 20.2 points (20th overall), 317.4 total yards (24th) and running for 87.8 yards (30th) per game.
Cleveland is 10th-best in the league at stopping foes from reaching the scoreboard, as a 19.4 points-per-week clip for opponents attests. The Browns are middle of the pack or worse in specific defensive categories, allowing 348.3 total yards (22nd overall), 223.6 passing yards (16th) and 124.7 rushing yards (23rd) per game over their initial 13 contests.
Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer is 5-0 at home as a starter against the Browns and in the team’s Week 2 game against Cleveland, completed 25-of-36 passes for 371 yards, two touchdowns and a 121.4 passer rating. He needs one touchdown pass to join Ken Anderson (197) and Boomer Esiason (187) as the only players in club history to reach 150 for their tenure in Cincinnati. Behind Palmer, running back Cedric Benson is 144 rush yards away from reaching 1,000 in consecutive seasons for the first time in his career. In three starts against Cleveland, hes averaged 101.7 rushing yards per game. Receiver Chad Ochocinco has 11 career touchdown receptions against the Browns, his most versus any opponent.
For Cleveland, rookie corner Joe Haden, the seventh overall pick in the 2010 draft, has an interception in four of his last five games and is tied for second among NFL rookies with five picks for the season. Linebacker Matt Roth has three sacks over his last two games against Cincinnati.
For the Browns, only Hillis and Watson are worthy of serious consideration, while kicker Phil Dawson is hampered by infrequent scoring opportunities. As for Cincinnati, Palmer and Owens present some upside possibilities, but are no sure thing.
The Browns inspired no one with their cold-weather performance last week in Buffalo, while the Bengals have been in an unfettered free-fall since beginning their post-playoff season at 2-1. That said, the Cincinnati offense did move the ball in the last matchup between the clubs and remains capable of the same things with superior personnel. Expect the long-term tiger-striped plummet to end, at least for one week.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bengals 17, Browns 13