KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
SURFACE: Field Turf
TV: CBS, Don Criqui, Steve Beuerlein
FORUMS: Browns-Bengals Game Thread
PREDICTION: Browns 21-20
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Browns are switching back to rookie QB Colt McCoy, who has missed three games with a high ankle sprain, but they'll keep the same gameplan -- feed RB Peyton Hillis. But Hillis' ball security (eight fumbles, five lost) has become problematic, and the Browns have to take shots against an injury-ravaged Bengals secondary. Bengals QB Carson Palmer has never lost to the Browns at home. If he gets a rhythm with WR Terrell Owens (222 yards in last meeting), the Browns might need to blitz to break up their timing. Palmer leads the AFC with 18 interceptions.
FAST FACTS: The Browns are 1-5 in their last six games at Cincinnati. ... Palmer is one touchdown pass shy of 150 for his career.
GAME PLAN: It sounds simple, but a big part of beating the Bengals will involve Peyton Hillis holding onto the football. The Browns' running back leads the NFL with eight fumbles. Five of them were recovered by opponents.
Hillis commits most of his fumbles fighting for extra yardage. Hillis is concentrating on securing the ball as he braces himself while falling to the ground. Last week in the 13-6 loss to the Bills he coughed the ball up three times.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Browns CB Sheldon Brown vs. Bengals WR Terrell Owens: Owens caught 10 passes for 222 yards when the Browns and Bengals met in Cleveland on Oct. 3. He did not catch all 10 on Brown, but he beat the Browns' corner for a majority of his catches, including a 78-yard catch and run for a touchdown.
Browns LB Eric Barton vs. Bengals RB Cedric Benson: The Browns are hurting at linebacker. Scott Fujita is down with a knee injury and David Bowens missed practice Wednesday with a head injury. Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer has thrown 18 interceptions, so the Bengals might be content to let Benson run against the depleted defense.
INJURY IMPACT: Most of the Browns' injuries are to the defense. The Bengals could run all day if David Bowens doesn't bounce back from a head injury and a sore hip and ankle keep defensive lineman Shaun Rogers sidelined.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Coach Eric Mangini on Wednesday morning said he wanted to see Colt McCoy practice later in the day and promised to clear up the ongoing quarterback muddle Thursday.
True to his word, Mangini announced his decision Thursday morning and then took the revelation two steps further by saying McCoy will start against the Bengals on Sunday in Cincinnati and also against the Ravens and Steelers in the final two games.
The decision brings stability to a position that until now was determined by health. Jake Delhomme suffered a sprained ankle in the opener. Seneca Wallace sprained his right ankle in the fifth game. McCoy sprained his left ankle in the 10th game.
"I felt like he's earned this opportunity and I want to give it to him," Mangini said. "I want to see how he continues to grow.
"This is by no stretch just throwing a young guy in for the sake of throwing a young guy in. If I didn't think he could lead us and be successful, I wouldn't make this decision."
Not that the locker room wasn't behind Delhomme, but they were energized to learn McCoy is back as the starter. McCoy lost to the Steelers in his rookie debut, was the quarterback when the Browns beat the Saints and Patriots, led a game-tying drive at the end of the fourth quarter against the Jets before subsequently losing in overtime and then was sacked six times in a 24-20 loss to the Jaguars. He was injured in that game and hasn't played since.
"The biggest thing is his leadership," wide receiver Chansi Stuckey said. "He has a certain moxie other young guys don't have. It comes from being the winningest quarterback (45 wins at Texas) in college history."
McCoy was slow to dress and approach the circle of reporters waiting for him before practice Thursday. This was different from the days leading to his first start; he got his first start because the right feet of Delhomme and Wallace were in walking boots. This time Mangini is saying McCoy is his guy over Delhomme and Wallace.
"Today is not a landmark day or anything," McCoy said. "I have got to go out there and get better and I've got to go out and figure out a way to beat Cincinnati. That's the most important thing. I think everybody in this locker room is on the same page and we've worked really hard yesterday and today.
"We have got to go back out there and do the same and take it one day at a time. I think that's the key for us the rest of the year is to take it one day at a time, one practice at a time and don't look forward at anything. Look to today, what we have got to do today to get better."
Much can be read into Mangini's decision other than to assume Mangini believes McCoy gives the Browns the best chance.
A good performance in the final three games sets McCoy up as the starter heading into training camp next year.
How well McCoy plays down the stretch will give team president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert a clearer idea of how to approach the early portion of the draft in April.
McCoy is not thinking that way. His mind is locked in on the Bengals, who despite being 2-11, have allowed fewer yards - albeit only six (4,522 compared to 4,528) - than the Browns.
"We have got a great opportunity this weekend against Cincinnati," McCoy said. "I think one key for us to be able to go win is to be better on third downs. The last couple of weeks, we haven't done a very good job on third downs."
The Browns beat the Bengals, 23-20, in Cleveland on Oct. 3 with Wallace at quarterback. They were 6 of 14 for 43 percent on third down.
During the second half of the Week 4 meeting in Cleveland, Ward hit Shipley high in the end zone and drew a 15-yard personal foul penalty. Shipley got a concussion on the play and missed the game the following week against Tampa Bay.
"I understand that it's football," Shipley said. "I understand that it's a tough thing for a defensive player. Our guys, I see it from their point of view too. They feel like sometimes they have to be super careful. It's a very short window of time that they have to decide what they're going to do. Those kinds of things happen and all you can do is learn from them and move on."
The hit drew a $15,000 fine from the league and was also used on a video distributed a couple weeks later in which helmet-to-helmet hits would draw heavier fines or possible suspensions.
Shipley is tied for the AFC rookie lead in receptions (47) and leads in receiving yards with 569. He is on pace to finish with 700 yards which would be the fourth-most by a rookie in team history.
As far as getting retribution for the hit, Palmer says that is the furthest thing from anyone's mind. First and foremost is trying to break a 10-game losing streak that began against the Browns.
"I mean, it was what it was. We've moved on," quarterback Carson Palmer said. "We want to win because it's a rivalry game, because it's a home game and because they're the team that started this whole slide. We went into that game as a confident team and they knocked us back a step. But our main incentive is, it's a rivalry game, the in-state battle."
--LB Scott Fujita remains sidelined from a knee injury suffered Nov. 14.
--A hip injury prevented TE Evan Moore from practicing. Saturday, he was designated as "out" for the Bengals.
--DL Brian Schaefering missed practice for the second straight day because of illness.
--LB David Bowens suffered a concussion in Buffalo and missed practice Thursday for the second straight day.
--LB Marcus Benard was limited Thursday with a shoulder injury.
The Browns are constantly tweaking their secondary to improve special teams and add depth in sub defensive packages.
In the latest move they elevated cornerback Coye Francies from the practice squad and waived defensive back Eric King. Francies is a comeback story. He was a sixth-round draft pick by the Browns last season. He played in only six games, was a non-factor and was waived in training camp.
Francies caught on with Las Vegas in the UFL. He intercepted two passes and helped the Locomotive win the league title. The Browns signed him to the practice squad on Dec. 1. He knows the defense, so elevating him was an easy decision for coach Eric Mangini.
--WR Chad Ochocinco did not practice due to a foot injury. Ochocinco said he has bone spurs, though he does anticipate playing on Sunday.
--WR Terrell Owens was limited in practice due to a knee injury but is expected to be in the lineup on Sunday.
--CB Johnathan Joseph was limited in practice due to an ankle injury. He said he should be able to start on Sunday.
--DT Pat Sims was limited due to a knee injury. He has been limited the past couple weeks but should start on Sunday.
BY THE NUMBERS: 18 -- Interceptions by the Browns. Last year they had 10 picks all season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It would be frustrating if a guy was just kind of sitting there and happy to not be playing; you definitely wouldn't want to put that person in the game." -- Coach Eric Mangini on understanding Seneca Wallace's frustration on not playing.