Browns, Bengals try to erase that losing feeling
With their season on the brink of collapse, the Cincinnati Bengals found a way to win last week against Philadelphia. And the Bengals found a way to win without five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green in the lineup.
Week 13 also was kind to the Cleveland Browns. They had a bye and coach Hue Jackson's winless squad sorely needed some time to regroup as they hope to avoid becoming the first team since the 2008 Detroit Lions to go 0-16. With quarterback Robert Griffin III starting this week for Cleveland, that may buoy the Browns' spirits.
On Sunday, the two intrastate rivals collide at 1 p.m. at Cleveland's FirstEnergy Stadium on the banks of Lake Erie.
Jackson did have this warning for his old team and the rest of the league on Wednesday.
"You better get us now because it won't be like this always," Jackson said of his 0-12 club. "We've got a lot of work ahead of us. I think we're committed to doing it the right way and the other part of it is you have to do it."
The Bengals (4-7-1) come to Cleveland having ended a four-game winless streak; they hadn't won since beating the Browns on Oct. 23. In between victories were three losses and an uninspiring tie along with even more uninspiring play.
Bengals players are very aware that the Browns and Jackson would love to win their first game against them.
"You don't want to be the team to help them stop their streak," said defensive end Carlos Dunlap. "For us it's an AFC North game, against one of our old coaches. We know it's personal for him and we're going to approach it that way."
Against the Eagles, quarterback Andy Dalton had his best game of the season when the Bengals needed it most. He passed for 332 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions.
Dalton completed 74 percent of his passes and had a season-high passer rating of 130.0 to help the Bengals keep their slim postseason hopes alive.
"When there are new guys in there it's going to take a little bit of time. It was definitely a big improvement this week and we have to keep going," Dalton said.
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis also praised his young group of wide receivers for stepping up while Green recovers from a hamstring problem.
"I think we have to be most pleased with our young group of guys," Lewis said. "Our receivers, particularly James Wright, Tyler Boyd, Cody Core, Alex Erickson, Brandon LaFell, and Tyler Eifert. They picked up the slack in a game where we had to throw the ball a little bit more than anticipated. Those guys did a very good job of executing and being efficient with it."
Dalton might be licking his chops as he prepares for a Browns' defense that has given up a league-high 28 touchdown passes. The Cleveland defensive line has an anemic 17 sacks -- last in the league.
No wonder Green, who has missed two games since being injured on the second play from scrimmage Nov. 20 against the Buffalo Bills, wants to return so quickly.
He worked out on the rehab field during Cincinnati's practice Wednesday but was declared out on Friday.
Green's one-handed catch in the middle of an end-zone scrum on a Hail Mary at the end of the first half highlighted Cincinnati's day full of big plays against the Browns in October.
In that game, Cincinnati amassed 559 yards of offense against a porous Browns defense. Jeremy Hill rushed for a career-high 168 yards and scored on a 74-yard run.
The Bengals have dominated Cleveland in four straight victories, holding the Browns to just 7.5 points per game in those contests.
Having been the offensive coordinator for two years under Lewis and the Bengals, Jackson knows all too well what the Browns are up against.
"They're starting to play well," Jackson said Wednesday. "The QB is playing well. Their defense is playing extremely well and they just beat a very good Philadelphia team."
Despite their struggles, the Browns continue to play hard -- a testament to Jackson.
"Some of the years' past, when you're sitting in this situation with poor records, the coach is imminently going to get fired," said left tackle and future Hall of Famer Joe Thomas. "All the players on the team are going to get cut, traded or released and you know a bomb is going to get dropped on the organization in a month. I think the optimism and positivity and the effort you still see out there on a daily basis is because everybody here knows we're working for something down the line in the future and it's not just going to get destroyed at the end of the season."
Still, with one of the youngest teams in the league, a bevy of draft picks and the expectation of being well below the salary cap, there will be plenty of opportunity to shore up the lack of talent on next year's team.
In essence, players are auditioning for jobs next year, and one player who will be closely followed is Griffin.
"He hasn't played a whole lot of football this year," Jackson said, but he will be playing Sunday.
For his part, Griffin wants the chance to prove he belongs, and he is all in as a Cleveland Brown.
"It is just an opportunity to get to play in the NFL with a group of guys that do not deserve to be 0-12," he said. "I just want to come in, give the team as much of a spark as I possibly can, have fun and hopefully, we can go 4-0 because that is what we have been working for in this last quarter of the season."
Updated December 9, 2016