The Battle of Ohio renews itself for the first time in 2012 as the Browns head to Cincinnati to take on the Bengals this Sunday. In addition to being a bitter intrastate rivalry dating back to the 1970’s, it also is a reminder of just how quickly fortunes can turn. You see, for the better part of a decade (and then some if we’re being honest) both the Browns and Bengals have looked like crap, continually finishing in a battle for the basement in the AFC North. But, all it takes is one draft to turn things around.
Thanks to last year’s influx of top-notch talent, the Bengals, yes… the lowly Bengals… look like a team on the rise. Andy Dalton, while still developing as an NFL QB, had a fantastic rookie campaign in 2011 and guided the Bengals to a playoff appearance. It also helped that he had a potential super-star wide receiver to throw to in fellow rookie A.J. Green and the emergence of Jermaine Gresham as a quality tight end. Now with an offseason of tinkering and retooling, gone is Cedric Benson and in steps BenJarvus Green-Ellis at running back. Andrew Hawkins looks like Wes Welker 2.0 after one game. The offensive line has been upgraded with the addition of former Browns and Pro-Bowl center Jeff Faine. There’s a lot to like there, not gonna lie.
Defensively, Marvin Lewis is one of the better defensive coaches in the league and as is the case most years, a lot is expected of Cincinnati’s defensive unit. While the defensive line is nothing noteworthy, the linebacking core is headed by Ray Maualuga, one of the most underrated middle linebackers in the game. He flies around the field with reckless abandon and is involved in almost every play. However, it’s in the secondary where the Bengals have done a good job of acquiring talent. They have six former first round picks to cover whatever arsenal of weapons opponents want to throw at them.
It’s a stark contrast from everything the Browns have tried to do in recent years. Whereas the Bengals have made it a priority to hoard top-notch talent, the Browns have opted to go with projects and a 30-year-old rookie QB while avoiding free agency like it’s the plague. The results speak for themselves. the Bengals look like they are in a position to make the playoffs and have back to back winning seasons in the first time in forever. The Browns look like they’re headed for the cellar, yet again. Of course it’s still early and a lot can happen between now and the end of week 17, but I don’t think I’m too far off my rocker in saying the Bengals are in a much better situation as a team than the Browns.
Who would have ever thought that could happen?
Keys to Victory:
1. Limit the turnovers: The Browns managed to create 5 turnovers against the Eagle and still found a way to lose by 1 lousy point. That’s because they turned it right back over 4 times themselves. Yes, the offense was abysmal to watch, but they did themselves no favors by continually shooting themselves in the foot. If they can end drives in points rather than interceptions the end result may be very different on Sunday.
2. Get Trent Richardson going: The Browns used Richardson a lot on Sunday, but he was mostly ineffective. I blame Shurmur for this. While T-Rich isn’t in game shape yet, Shurmur didn’t do anything expect run him straight up the middle time and time again. Why not attempt a screen pass or a pitch to get him building up a head of steam around the corner? It would also help if the offensive line actually created holes for him to run through, but Shurmur’s lack of creativity was more of a problem in my opinion.
3. Find a way to replace Joe Haden: Thanks to testing positive for Adderall Haden is gone for the next four games. That’s a problem because after one game it was clear that Haden is our best player on defense and looked primed to have a big year. He looked like he was ready to make the leap to the next level of shut down NFL corners.Do the Browns have enough to make up for such a huge loss? It’s doubtful, but somehow some way they’re going to have to find a way otherwise A.J. Green is going to have himself a field day against a second-rate defensive back.
4. Brandon Weeden has to be better: There’s no point in rehashing the obvious, Brandon Weeden had a terrible NFL debut. Having said that, he has to be better in week 2. Both from a “he has to because the Browns need him to be” and a “he has to be better because how could he be worse?” That means making better decisions and not forcing the issue. He needs to let the game come to him. He also has to hit receivers when they come wide open. He overthrew several receivers on plays that more than likely would have resulted in touchdowns. If he completes just a few of those passes, then we’re looking at Sunday’s game from a completely different perspective.
5. Better coaching: Pat Shurmur has to make better decisions regarding time outs, challenges, two point conversions, plays… He pretty much needs to do everything better. Whether he will or not is doubtful. Shurmur has yet to show any signs that he’s a competent NFL head coach. In all honesty, that’s probably because Shurmur just isn’t a good NFL head coach. There’s enough evidence to prove this. I’m also beginning to doubt whether or not he’s even a competent offensive coordinator. How does a coach whose specialty is offense have such an unimmaginative, uninspiring, god-awful offense?
Prediction: Bengals 31 – Browns 10