Cleveland Browns vs. Cincinnati Bengals

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Game: Cleveland Browns (9-5) vs. Cincinnati Bengals (5-9)
Where: Paul Brown Stadium (Cincinnati, OH)
When: 1:00 PM EST
Announcers: Greg Gumbel & Dan Dierdorf (CBS)

The Browns are a win today away from making the postseason. Who is the only person that will stand in our way? Carson Palmer. Even with the struggles that Palmer has had this season, it's hard to say that he won't find success against the Browns' defense this week. Palmer has averaged 257 yards passing and 2.7 touchdowns per game in his seven appearances against the Browns. Things have been worse over the past three games, as Palmer has averaged 342 yards passing and 3.66 touchdowns. The Browns' defense has stepped up to the challenge the past two weeks overall (not the end of games), so will they finally come through against Palmer when it counts?

Continuing my trend, I'm going to highlight a couple of other games to watch today. These games will have the most significant impact on the Browns' playoff chances:

New York Jets (3-11) vs. Tennessee Titans (8-6): If the Browns win in the morning, this game won't mean a thing because we will have clinched the playoffs already. However, if the Browns lose, we will have to hope the Titans lose against the Jets (which would also clinch a playoff berth for us). Vince Young finally came through as a passing quarterback against the Kansas City Chiefs last week, but things won't get easy against a Jets defense that shut down Tom Brady last week and have been playing teams tough. With some late-game magic, you can count on the Titans pulling off the victory in a game of field goals over the Jets.

Oakland Raiders (4-10) vs. Jacksonville Jaguars (10-4): The Browns are still capable of reaching the fifth seed, but it would require the Jaguars to lose their final two games (although a Browns win and a Jaguars loss this week would temporarily put us into the fifth seed). The Raiders are expected to play JaMarcus Russell a little more today, but I wouldn't expect him to find much success against the Jaguars defense. Jacksonville proved last week that they can run the football against anyone in the NFL. You can bank on the Jaguars clinching a postseason berth with a win over the Raiders.

Now, here's the preview for the showdown between the Browns and the Bengals...

OFFENSE

Category Browns Bengals
Points Scored 26.2 (5th) 23.1 (13th)
Passing 234.8 (11th) 255.8 (5th)
Rushing 114.0 (14th) 94.6 (23rd)
Total Offense (yards) 348.8 (10th) 350.4 (7th)

DEFENSE

Category Browns Bengals
Points Scored 25.4 (28th) 24.7 (26th)
Passing 249.5 (29th) 228.1 (25th)
Rushing 128.9 (28th) 119.4 (24th)
Total Defense (yards) 378.4 (32nd) 347.4 (28th)
- Quarterback
In the introduction, I stressed the amount of success that Palmer has historically had against the Browns. But, what about the negatives that he has had? Palmer has averaged 1.57 interceptions against the Browns over seven games, including 1.66 interceptions over his past three games against the Browns. The Bengals don't have a running game, and that means Palmer is going to throw the football very often against the Browns. I would have been worried about that earlier this season, but look what the Browns' secondary has done to opposing teams over the past month or so. Sure, we haven't faced quarterbacks as prolific as Carson Palmer, but the secondary has matured to the point where they are only giving up plays that are in front of them. Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh can get frustrated if they aren't able to go down the field, which should keep Palmer from exploding as much as he did in Week 2. As far as the Bengals' defense goes, they haven't changed much since Week 2. Derek Anderson should be able to throw the ball better than he has over the past month, but he still needs to stay away from the middle of the field early on as he's had a tendency to get picked off by opposing safeties.
- Running Back
If you could hand out grades to these teams' running backs right now, the Browns would get an "A" and the Bengals would get an "F". Although Rudi Johnson has struggled this season, one of his two good games came against the Browns in Week 2. That's why I'm thrilled that we won't have to deal with Johnson this week, as he is out with an injury. Bengals fans may like Kenny Watson or DeDe Dorsey better at this point, but they aren't the type of running backs that are going to easily throw up big plays on the ground. Jamal Lewis ran for over 200 yards against the Bengals earlier this season, and has gone over the 100-yard mark in three of his past four games. The Browns are confident in their ability to run the ball, and as long as we don't fall behind by two or three scores early, Lewis will receive a healthy dose against the Bengals. I usually call for Jerome Harrison to get some snaps, but he won't be necessary this week.
- Receiver
What has gone wrong with Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh? They aren't producing bad on paper, but a lot of their success this season has come in spurts -- they may each have a couple of great games, but then in the other games, they'll be a non-factor. That's the opposite of what Braylon Edwards has done this season, as he's made an impact on just about every game this year. Despite the controversy in Cincinnati on which receivers will stay or go next season, but you still can't doubt the talent that Johnson and Houshmandzadeh bring to the table. Kellen Winslow has been very quiet over the past three week -- so much, that I hesitate making my typical claim that he'll "find success" against the Bengals. It all depends on what the Browns' gameplan is, and against the Bengals, we should get down near the red zone often. That's where Winslow could shine for a score or two, even if they are his only receptions in the game.
- Offensive Line
It's really funny when you look back at my gameday preview from Week 2, because the Bengals were favored in the first five categories, including the offensive line. Things have definitely changed over the course of the season. On paper, Palmer has only been sacked a few more times than Anderson has. If you review all of the tapes from the season though, Palmer has by far been under a lot more duress than Anderson has. Eric Steinbach will be returning to his old stomping grounds for this one, and it'd be nice to see him pave the way for another big day for Jamal Lewis like he did in Cleveland.
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Defensive Line
Shaun Smith will also be returning to face his former team, and I wouldn't be surprised if it's as a starter again at defensive end in front of Orpheus Roye, who has been limited in practice again this week. The Browns' defensive line has continued holding running backs in check for the first half of games over the past month, and that should bode well for them against the Bengals, who are often forced to abandoned the run and play from behind in the second half of games. Like the Browns, the Bengals have trouble generating much of a pass rush -- so much, that technically I should probably give the Browns the edge here. However, considering I still believe the Browns' defensive line needs an overhaul in the offseason, I'll play it safe and not give them too much credit.

- Linebacker
I don't have faith that Andra Davis will have another career performance this week, but it's definitely intriguing to hope that a green light went on in Davis' head after last week. Davis' performance early will be something to look out for. Want to know something very interesting historically about Davis against the Bengals too? In 2004, 2005, and 2006, Davis had at least one interception against Carson Palmer, showing that he's had the ability to pick off Palmer. Could he continue his streak and pick him off for the fourth year in a row? Antwan Peek is questionable for the Browns this week again, so I wouldn't have much faith in him playing either. The Bengals linebackers are nothing more than a footnote to mention, so I'll just leave the linebacker section primarily focusing on Davis.
- Secondary
The Bengals can be picked apart in the secondary -- after all, Anderson threw for five touchdowns against them earlier this season, and they haven't gotten any better since then. If there's a person to look out for, it would again be a team's best safety, this time former Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson. Jackson only has two interceptions this season, but one of them came against Anderson in Week 2. The Browns didn't record any picks last week, but with the depth we have now, it seems like an individual player can't get picked on anymore. It'll be interesting to see if Brandon McDonald can shut down...T.J. Houshmandzadeh (not Chad Johnson), if the Browns put him on him in coverage. Houshmandzadeh has caught six touchdowns in his past five games against the Browns -- limiting the Bengals to only one playmaker would be huge.
- Special Teams
I think the Browns' defense will do better against the Bengals than they did in Week 2, but I also think the Bengals are going to put points on the board. On a positive note, that'll create some more opportunities for Joshua Cribbs in the kick return game again. Call it a hunch, but I have a feeling that Bengals will kick to Cribbs, rather than away from him. Phil Dawson etched himself in the books as one of the best kickers in the NFL this season after last week. If it comes down to a game-winning attempt for Dawson this week against the Bengals, I'd have faith that he could make it. Hopefully it doesn't come down to that though, because the wind is supposed to be around 19-31 MPH for today's game.

FINAL PREDICTION:
Cleveland Browns 31, Cincinnati Bengals 28.
All of the remaining seeds in the AFC really come down to what the Cleveland Browns do this week. With a Browns win, Cleveland clinches the playoffs and makes it very difficult for the Titans to catch the Jaguars or Steelers. With a Browns loss, the Titans would in theory be ahead of the Browns heading into Week 17, and the Steelers would clinch the AFC North. The Bengals have looked down and out often this season, but they have been "fired up" during the week because they feel the Browns set them on the negative trend that they are currently on. It takes more than being "fired up" to win though -- it'll take a good defense and solid pass protection up front. Without those two elements, the Browns will pull out a tough road win in a shootout.

This is the official gameday topic for the Cleveland Browns in Week 16 as they square off against the Cincinnati Bengals. All comments regarding the game should be posted in this topic. Enjoy the game, and GO BROWNS!!!
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