KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: CBS, Ian Eagle, Solomon Wilcots
SERIES: 64th meeting. Browns lead 33-30, including 20-11 in Cleveland. The last meeting between the teams, a 58-48 Bengals victory in Cincinnati, produced the second-most single-game points in league history: 106. It was the highest scoring game since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
PREDICTION: Bengals 24-13
KEYS TO THE GAME: A track meet is not in the Browns' best interest. Their offensive line hasn't proven it can protect QB Trent Dilfer long enough to consistently drop back and look downfield. The puts the onus on the running game led by RB Reuben Droughns, who will be attacking a defense that allowed 128.9 yards per game on the ground last season. The Bengals have more overall talent and speed on both sides of the ball, but they're still young. Cincinnati should have success moving the ball against the Cleveland's new 3-4 defense that's lacking sufficient personnel. Look for RB Rudi Johnson to get plenty of early work in an attempt to bring the Browns safeties forward. The Browns have significant questions at corner and if they're left on an island against WRs Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, it could get out of hand.
FAST FACTS: Bengals: Travel a league-low 7,263 miles by air this season. ... CBs Tory James and Deltha O'Neal's combined 40 interceptions since 2001 are the most for any current teammates in the NFL. Browns: Twenty-six of the 53 players on the roster were not on the roster last season. ... Have lost by an average of 13.6 points during five-game home losing streak.
- CB Tory James is probable with a toe injury. He returned to practice
Thursday. He is an important Sunday against the Browns' improved pass
offense, with new receivers Antonio Bryant and Braylon Edwards.
- T Willie Anderson, who had microfracture surgery in January, did not
practice Thursday but is listed as probable. He is on target with his
eight-month rehabilitation. The Bengals like to run off right tackle with
- WR Kelley Washington (hamstring) is questionable but practiced Thursday
for the first time in almost two weeks. He is expected to work as the No. 3
receiver Sunday at Cleveland. If he can't play, the Bengals might be forced
to use rookie Chris Henry as the No. 3 wideout.
- RB Chris Perry is listed as probable with a heat cramp. He did not
practice Thursday but is expected to be a dangerous wild card in the Bengals
offense. He can work as a receiver in the slot or spread outside.
- K Shayne Graham said he has kicked field goals and worked on kickoffs this week in practice. He did not kickoff in the preseason because of a groin injury in his right (kicking) leg. The Bengals don't have a backup kicker on the roster, and if Graham were unable to kickoff, that duty would fall to punter Kyle Larson.
- CB Gary Baxter will not play Sunday against Cincinnati. Baxter has yet
to practice since he left a preseason game in Detroit on Aug. 20 with a
concussion. His progress has been slow, and he said he can do nothing but
try to be patient.
- CB Leigh Bodden will start opposite Daylon McCutcheon against
Cincinnati. The pairing of Bodden and McCutcheon presents matchup problems
for the Browns. Bodden has one career start, and neither he nor McCutcheon
are pure cover corners. Both are facing top-notch receivers in Chad Johnson
and T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
- RB Lee Suggs did not practice all week and figures to miss the season
opener with a high ankle sprain. Suggs finished the 2004 season with three
100-yard games in a row, but his injured start is a refrain that is getting
old to the Browns. Suggs has started each of the last three seasons with an
- RB Reuben Droughns figures to start for the Browns. Droughns has shown
downhill ability in preseason, and has come on strong since returning from a
hamstring injury that sidelined him for 11 days in preseason.
- WR Braylon Edwards will be the Browns' third receiver in the opener. Edwards was not in camp long enough to wrest the starting job from Dennis Northcutt, but will play a lot as the third receiver. When that happens, look for Northcutt to move inside in the slot where he is very effective.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
The Bengals return all 11 starters on an offense that was the first in franchise history to gain 450 yards in three conscecutive games.
There are a lot more questions about the Bengals defense than the offense. The defense will be better the longer the offense can keep it off the field.
The team re-signed three unrestricted free agents - center Rich Braham, tailback Rudi Johnson and wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Of the three, Houshmandzadeh this season might have the biggest shoes to fill.
Last season, Johnson took over for Corey Dillon and set franchise records with 361 rushing attempts and 1,454 yards. This year, Houshmandzadeh takes over as the No. 2 receiver in place of Peter Warrick. The Bengals terminated Warrick's contract, releasing the former first-round draft pick (2000) and replacing him with their seventh-round pick from 2001.
Houshmandzadeh took over as the starter when Warrick struggled with knee and shin injuries, which landed Warrick on the injured reserve list in November.
Houshmandzadeh had 55 catches after Warrick's season ended in 2004 and 61 receptions in games in which Warrick was not active. Did Warrick's absence help Houshmandzadeh?
"I don't know if that plays a role in how I think or how I play," Houshmandzadeh said. "I never thought about it. I would never want to see him not be here because, outside of football, we were friends. We got along."
Like his team, Houshmandzadeh is striving for consistency.
"Games 1 through 16, good all the way through," he said.
He had no receptions in the game at Cleveland in 2004 and just one reception in three other games. Then, of course, he had the 22 receptions for 316 yards in consecutive games against Baltimore and New England.
Houshmandzadeh started slow in the preseason. He had no catches in the first
two games, dropping what would have been a 45-yard touchdown at Washington. Then
he had three grabs at Philadelphia and two last Friday against Indianapolis, one
for a touchdown. Warrick had been released three days earlier.
Rudi Johnson set a Browns-Bengals record the last time the Cincinnati Bengals played the Browns.
Johnson embarrassed the Browns defense by rushing for 202 yards. Nobody in
the prior 62 games between the two teams had run for more.
If the Browns hope to compete in Sunday's season opener, their front seven must contain the run. That will be easier said than done, and not just because Johnson is so good.
The Browns' first-team defense struggled against the run in preseason, giving up an average of 115.5 yards per game. That figure would have ranked the team 14th in the league a year ago. That statistic is deceiving, though, because the Browns also gave up an average of 4.4 yards per carry, which is not good.
New players are learning a new system, which makes it challenging. Nobody knows who will start at outside linebacker, whether it's Kenard Lang or Chaun Thompson. Too, the depth on the defensive line is suspect, which is always a concern in the 3-4 system because players must rotate to stay fresh.
Romeo Crennel knows that if the Bengals are able to run the ball it will make
play-action more effective and receiver Chad Johnson more dangerous.