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5-3!!!...for now. NCP examines Browns vs. Bengals

Don't forget to follow the NCP @northcoastposse for snark, analysis and deep thoughts during the game

So, 5-3, not bad huh?

Big$- I am actually tickled pink with the 5-3 record, especially since I only predicted a 4-win season back in early September. However, it’s time to temper the exuberance again as we approach Thursday night. I got a bit over my skis last week when I called for a blowout of the Buccaneers, that's just not who this team is. The fact that they are even competitive with the loss of 3 offensive Pro-Bowlers is a testament to the veteran leadership still standing (especially Mr. Hoyer). With that said, I have lost sleep this week envisioning the curb-stomping the Bengals D-line is going to lay on poor li'l Nick McDonald. Peko and Adkins are top notch DT's who have probably created a fishing pond of drool in the Bengals film room after setting their eyes on the green backup center. The O is predicated on the run setting up the play action and I expect the Browns to be running about as successfully Ed FitzGerald this Sunday. To digress, 5-4 still isn't that bad and I see 4 winnable games left on the schedule after this week (Hou, Atl, Buf and Carolina). If this team is 9-7, I think it can be considered a smashing success for the new regime.

 K-Dubs, the Soldier- As I have said nearly every week so far, at least the Browns games aren’t boring (except the loss to Jacksonville).  For the second week in a row, the Browns played a tight game against a bad team with a young quarterback.  But for the second week in a row, they came out with a win.   In hanging tough for four quarters, though, the Buccaneers further exposed the Browns’ persistent weaknesses.  Tampa’s front four bullied the Browns offensive line, bottling up the running game (50 yards on 28 carries) and tallying three sacks.  I hope this short game-week has given backup center Nick McDonald enough time to get the grass stains out of the back of his jersey.  Hoyer’s completion percentage was better than in recent weeks (21 for 34, 61.8%), but he missed some open throws again.  Of particular note was an off-target throw to a wide-open Ben Tate in the right flat.  Tate caught the ball, but the poor throw ultimately forced him out at the 5 yard line.  They had to settle for a field goal but would have had a sure touchdown in Hoyer could hit him in stride.  On the defensive side, the Browns again made a practice-squad running back look like a Pro-Bowler, as Bobby Rainey racked up 87 yards on 19 carries.   They are beating the bad teams, though, and making the plays when they need to.  These are signs of a team moving in the right direction.

 Where would you start LeBron this week?

Big$ - I'm actually giving LeBron the week off from football this week. After watching the Portland game, he has enough basketball issues to sort out.

 K-Dubs, the Soldier- I’m lining up LeBron again as the punt returner this week.  The Browns have yet to find someone reliable to field kicks.  Coach Pettine sent in Jim Leonhard to return punts last week because his sure hands offered a safer alternative to the big-play-but-butterfingered-potential of Jordan Poyer and Travis Benjamin.  A funny thing happened on the way to the hash marks, however.  Leonhard forgot to actually catch the punt.  Although the special teams played exceptionally overall last week, with a blocked punt, a blocked field goal, and converting three Billy Cundiff field goals, the Browns need to be more efficient in the return game to maximize field position against quality teams like the Bengals.

Prediction:

 Big$- Well, I think I kind of showed my cards earlier in this entry. I don't expect a competitive game as the injury riddled Browns are currently less-ready-for-primetime than Garrett Morris and Gilda Radner combined. I’d love to be wrong but I am calling for a Bengals 31-10 victory.

K-Dubs, the Soldier-  The Bengals seem to flitter between legitimate contenders and mediocrity from week to week, but I think that is only because the schedule requires them to play road games.  They are extremely tough when playing at home, going 13-0-1 in their last 14 games in Porkopolis.  If you think that is impressive, check this out: The Browns have lost their last 18 divisional road games since beating the Bengals early in the 2008 season.   I really don’t see either streak breaking this week.  Bengals starting running back Giovanni Bernard was out last week, and may miss the Browns game, as well, but the team remained committed to the run.  Bernard’s replacement, rookie Jeremy Hill, gained 154 yards on the ground last week against Jacksonville, and showed some explosiveness on a 60-yard touchdown run.  That is bad news for the Browns, which ranks 31st in the league in rushing defense, surrendering 140.2 yards per game.  And while star receiver A.J. Green has been banged up this year, counterpart Mohamed Sanu has emerged as a threat, gaining 628 yards through the first eight games of the season.  The Browns cornerbacks not named Joe Haden are really going to have to step up to help contain Cincinnati’s passing game.  I am not hopeful of that, though, as the giant Buccaneers’ receivers put up big numbers last week when Haden was not covering them (Mike Evans-124 yards, 2 TDs; Vincent Jackson-86 yards).  The Browns D is improving, but that improvement is very gradual, as the team still ranks 28th in total yards allowed per game.  I expect the Bengals to be able to control the clock and move the chains on third down.

On the other side of the ball, I echo Big$’s concerns about the ability of the Bengals defensive line to plug up the running game and get pressure on Hoyer.   All-world linebacker Vontaze Burfict (171 tackles in 2013) and cornerback Leon Hall are both out with injuries, and linebacker Rey Maualuga is also doubtful.  The Browns need to take advantage of these losses by attacking the edges and using Coach Shannahan’s misdirection passing game to avoid the penetration from the Bengals down linemen.  The Browns will likely move the ball against the Bengals, whose defense has fallen in the ranks precipitously from the beginning of the season and now ranks 31st in total yardage allowed.  With tight end Jordan Cameron still out with a concussion and a running game that has been missing-in-action for a month, though, I do not see the Browns putting up enough points to win.  I hope I am wrong, but I think Cincinnati takes this one, 20-17.