The one thing I've noticed about Browns week is that it doesn't have that same in-state rivalry feeling it once had; not since the days when Paul Brown single-handedly pounded the emotion and motivation into his players. The first time the Bengals ever played the Browns, 83,520 fans watched in Cleveland. The Bengals, led by Virgil Carter and Speedy Thomas, took a 20-16 lead into the fourth quarter when Leroy Kelly and Bo Scott recorded one-yard touchdowns each, eventually beating Cincinnati 30-27. Virgil Carter, during the second meeting, threw for 123 yards and recorded a touchdown, while rushing nine times for 110 yards rushing. Paul Robinson (rushing) and Jess Phillips (receiving) each recorded touchdowns as the Bengals won 14-10. In the end, Paul Brown finished his Bengals head coaching with Cincinnati with a 6-6 record when coaching against the Browns. All but one loss was decided by a touchdown and seven of the 12 games were within seven points. The rivalry would remain strong, but when the Bengals started plummeting, so did the rivalry. When the Bengals came back to competitiveness with Marvin Lewis, the Browns won more than six games once (2007).
The Bengals natural rival is the Cleveland Browns, for many reasons. For one, the history. For two, geography. And the only reason that Pittsburgh has played the Bengals more, is because the Browns disappeared from 1996-1999. It's been a long time since the Bengals and Browns finished the same season with a winning record. In 1988, the Browns finished 10-6 while Cincinnati went 12-4 with a Super Bowl appearance.
Key #1. Don't let down. The thought of the week has been "Trap Game", or "Let Down game". The Bengals are coming off an emotion high against the Pittsburgh Steelers with the division leading Baltimore Ravens on tap next week. The fear is that the players could totally forgo worrying about the Browns, thinking it will an easy win over an inferior team on paper. If this rivalry were alive, that could only add to the emotional factor that the Browns would take advantage of while Cincinnati went into some conservative, don't make a mistake mode that seems to be the virus that kills most superior teams during headline-slamming upsets. Marvin Lewis felt the same thing. He knew that the potential was there. Instead of going through a typical week, Lewis decided last Sunday night to have the team practice in jerseys without numbers or names. In his mind, it reminds his players to be selfless.
Key #2. Don't just win. Win early. Win big. I'm like everyone else. A win is a win and we should be happy about that. If the Bengals play down to the Browns, and allow Cleveland to stay in the game late, the chances of Cincinnati winning dwindles. That's sort of what happened with Pittsburgh. They allowed us to stay in the game, giving the Bengals an opportunity to win the football game when they could have stepped on our throats in the first half. Sure, the Bengals are largely responsible for keeping themselves in the game. However, we were reeling in the first half, on our heels, just waiting to take a three touchdown deficit into half time. Either way, the Bengals can't be the Steelers. When Cincinnati gets into the RedZone, they have to score touchdowns.
Furthermore, the Browns are a team that are searching. They seem like the team Cincinnati put on the field in 2008. The Bengals have to win this game early. They have to win this game big. If they do, then they'll be noted as being "for real." If they don't, they run a big risk of losing this game, allowing the Browns to pick up confidence the longer that they're in it.
Key #3. Defense has to be strong. Offense has to breakout. This plays off the second key. There's a philosophical tone with the Bengals against the Browns. Cleveland has allowed 34 points to the Vikings, 27 points to the Broncos and 34 points to the Ravens. Cleveland leads the league in rushing touchdowns allowed. Cedric Benson had a career game against the Browns last year. Cincinnati has to put up points. In order to do that, they have to have their most complete game of the year. The rushing offense and passing offense has to be in sync, especially with the Ravens on tap in week five. With three games under his belt to shake the rust, Carson Palmer has to have his best game as does Chad Ochocinco and Laveranues Coles. Cedric Benson and the rushing offense (sounds like a band name, doesn't it?) have to set that tone by forcing the Browns secondary to single-cover the Bengals receivers; we'll dominate the passing game. In the past two games, the Browns defense has allowed an average 464 yards total. If the Bengals are going to compete against the better teams this year, they have to dominate winless teams that are immensely struggling.
Defensively, the Bengals should be focusing on Derek Anderson, who is 2-1 when starting against the Bengals. Even though Cincinnati allowed 328 yards passing and five touchdowns to Anderson in 2007, they came back to beat Anderson with four interceptions. In 2008, Anderson didn't have a particularly good day, but the Bengals had played their first game that year without Carson Palmer and we were in a state of "oh crap".
I believe if the game comes down to the end, then the Bengals defense will have to win this game. Other than drives in which the Bengals had to score, the offense has largely struggled, in terms of finishing drives. Sure, they can move the ball. But turnovers and penalties have badly stalled drives. There really is no better chance for the offense to completely breakout. Not only would it not surprise me if Palmer had 300 yards passing (three touchdowns) and Chad had 100 yards receiving with Benson's 100 yard rushing, it would disappoint me.
In conclusion: If the Bengals fail to win this game, then Cincinnati is back to square one. After three weeks of saying "if not for the fluke play, we'd be undefeated", the Bengals would have lost to the team that many observers call the worst NFL team this year. If the Bengals win, and do it barely, then questions will rise again about the legitimacy of the team's chances. In other words, if they barely beat the Browns, how can they compete against the conference best? I believe that the Bengals will win by at least two touchdowns. I think our defense is strong enough to keep the Browns from breaking out and I believe that our offense light the world afire.
Paul Brown's game-by-game record as Bengals head coach against the Cleveland Browns.