"How do you keep a Bengal Tiger out of your backyard?," Patricia Heaton asked when interviewed on the NFL Network's "A Football Life" documentary on legendary NFL figurehead, Paul Brown. "Put up a goal post out there," she said with a grin.
Heaton, of ABC's "The Middle" and CBS' "Everybody Loves Raymond" sitcoms, was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, and while she loves the Browns, she also shares one thing in common with the Brown family and Bengals fans: a love for Paul Brown.
Cincinnati faces off against Cleveland in the long-tenured "Battle of Ohio" this Sunday for the second installment of the 2015 season. It marks a few different occasions for both teams, both fortuitous and inauspicious. The Bengals are on a forward march to the playoffs while the Browns are using their peripheral to contemplate their quarterback position yet again.
Though Marvin Lewis has largely dominated the series in his tenure as Bengals head coach, the Browns have often supplied the fly in the ointment. Whether it was in Lewis' first season as a head coach when the Bengals looked to get to the playoffs in 2003, an odd 51-45 loss in 2007, or a splitting of the series the past three seasons, the recent hard feelings are but a branch of the massive Brown football tree implanted in Ohio.
In 25 games against Cleveland, Lewis has seen it all. A 17-8 record, overtime games, shootouts and 15 different Browns quarterbacks, if you count Austin Davis getting the nod this Sunday. In ol' Marv's corner is just four different starters under center, likely a large part to the much larger taste of success than the team had pre-Lewis.
While Paul has to be happy with Lewis' dominance over the Browns in his almost 13 years of coaching the Bengals, it's the stigma of postseason and prime time woes that still lingers. Sure, the Bengals' lone prime time win in three 2015 tries was against the struggling Browns, bit all cards are thrown out the window when division rivals play--especially two teams with as rich of history as Cincinnati and Cleveland.
The Browns are in a dangerous state right now with nothing to lose at 2-9, while playing their young talent, looking to cement next year's roster. While on paper, it seems Cleveland is decimated by injury (and they are), it also provides them the opportunity to play guys as dress rehearsals for 2016 roster spots. Though this group of Browns aren't necessarily hungry in terms of a playoff spot, many of the players are anxious to secure a post for their football future. What better way to prove their worth than showing up big against the AFC North-leading Bengals at him in the Dawg Pound.
A month after the Bengals throttled the Browns at Paul Brown Stadium by three touchdowns on national television, they have turned to young Austin Davis and not Johnny Manziel for hope. As the season began to clearly get out of control, Mike Pettine and the powers-that-be decided JFF would be the guy going forward. It was an experiment of sorts, largely to determine to the future of the Browns franchise and answer their 16-year quarterback question.
Just two games and a bye week full of partying and lies apparently gave them all they needed to know about the second-year quarterback out of Texas A&M. While exciting and talented, Manziel's volatile personality has mired him behind Davis this week, and likely for the foreseeable future. How many more chances will Johnny Football receive in Cleveland?
After Manziel's antics led to Pettine re-naming Josh McCown the starter and another injury to the journeyman quarterback muddied the waters, Davis inspired enough hope let Monday night against the Ravens to give him the nod this week. Davis came in and nearly led the Browns to a victory with a 7-of-10, 77-yard effort before Cleveland did its best job at being the Browns they are by relinquishing a touchdown on what would have been a game-winning field goal against Baltimore.
The fourth-year quarterback out of Southern Mississippi has had a few chances to shine, but questions on his overall ability and a lack of surrounding talent make him Cleveland's version of The Riddler. Last year with the Rams, Davis had 12 touchdowns against nine interceptions, with a 3-5 record as a starter. The Eagles and Rams made a blockbuster quarterback trade this offseason, casting Davis aside, but the Browns are hoping to catch lightning in a bottle in the form of Brian Hoyer. Did we mention Cleveland casting Hoyer aside as well?
Making life more difficult for Davis is the pile of injuries the Browns are facing Sunday. Wide receivers Taylor Gabriel and Andrew Hawkins are out with concussion issues, while two former first round cornerbacks, Joe Haden and Justin Gilbert, are also out, also with concussions. It's going to take an impeccable game from Davis, like the one he had against the eventual NFC Champion Seahawks in Week 7 of 2014 for them to have a shot against one of the AFC favorites on Sunday.
Paul Brown: The Man, The Myth, The Legend
Recently, The NFL Network aired a great "Football Life" documentary on NFL icon, Paul Brown. We look back and remember his enormous impact on the game today.
Arriving across the great state of Ohio is a somewhat Jekyll-and-Hyde 9-2 Bengals team. After shooting out to a franchise record-setting 8-0 start, two losses by a combined seven points and a subsequent victory over Davis' Rams has Cincinnati coming to Cleveland with both confidence and question marks.
Quarterback Andy Dalton is playing the best football of his life and has sat in his La-z-Boy while doling out dimes to his plethora of weapons. However, the man who he has doled out almost half of his touchdown passes to, Tyler Eifert, is doubtful on this week's injury report. While A.J. Green won't have to go up against his arch-nemesis in Haden this Sunday, it might be tougher sledding than usual without Dalton's favorite red zone target at his disposal. Not worried? Eifert had three touchdown receptions just a month ago against these Browns.
As was the hope and eventual game plan against St. Louis, the running game came through. This time it wasn't Giovani Bernard who carried them (figuratively and literally) to a victory, but the constant pounding of Jeremy Hill negating a scary pass rush. While it's the time of year the Christmas gifts and stocking stuffers are sought out by rabid shoppers, it's the part of the calendar that playoff-bound NFL squads are looking to have an established running game.
Hill was arguably the best player in the NFL through the last half of 2014, but this year can only aptly be placed in the dreaded "Sophomore Slump" file. While he might eclipse his rushing touchdown total from last season (9), he is only averaging 3.5 yards per carry--more than a yard and a half off from last year. He had his highest average per carry total last week at 5.4, and the hope is that that isn't an anomaly with the Bengals approaching January.
It's very likely the Bengals will be employing both Bernard and Hill this week. Between their combined 228 rushing yards in 15 last year and the Browns' 2015 No. 31 ranking against the run, it doesn't seem like a bold strategy, Cotton. This especially rings true if Eifert sits and the Bengals want to remain as healthy as possible for the December stretch run.
In Cincinnati's corner is a revamped defensive line and a somewhat-opportunistic defense. While George Iloka and Dre Kirkpatrick haven't created the turnovers some hoped (just one interception between the two), veterans like Leon Hall, Adam Jones and Reggie Nelson have picked up the slack with 10 combined interceptions. They have a middle-of-the-road defense, in terms of overall statistics, but they're playing every aspect of the defense pretty well.
With the Steelers looming in Week 14 and other challenges in the form of the Denver Broncos in primetime and the playoffs on the horizon, it's easy to look at this as one of those "trap games". Cincinnati is on the road, facing a lowly opponent who also happens to be a heated division rival. After spending so much anger on the Rams with two consecutive bitter losses in their rearview, you need to wonder how much fuel is in the Bengals' reserve tank for a game like this.
Some signs point to a ridiculous blowout by Cincinnati, given the overall talent disparity and the disarray the Browns are facing at critical positions within the franchise, Other cynical signs point to a familiar disappointment in a game they should win and potentially lock up another AFC North crown under Lewis.
Since Dalton took the reigns from Carson Palmer, there have been a number of occasions where the media and fans have called this "a different team". It's hard to keep hanging your hat on the notion, given the multitude of disappointments only the Bengals know how to give their most faithful.
That being said, this is a game that gives the Bengals a chance to prove something. Win a sneaky-tough game you're supposed to and continue the march to Levi's Stadium in February to continue to keep this ship chugging along while quieting the critics. There is a chance the game could be much closer than some think, but for now we'll give the Bengals the benefit of the doubt.
Bengals 27, Browns 13
AC -- "Too much walkin', shoes worn thin. Too much trippin' and my soul's worn thin. Time to catch a ride, it leaves today, her name is what it means. Too much walkin' shoes worn thin. Time to take her home, her dizzy head is conscience-laden. Time to take a ride, it leaves today, no conversation. Time to wait too long, to wait too long."