The Bengals, even at 0-3, aren't out of the race in what might be one of the weakest divisions in the NFL.
The Cleveland Browns, expected to challenge for the AFC North crown but, like the Bengals, mired in an 0-3 start, travel to Cincinnati Sunday for the 70th meeting in "The Battle of Ohio."
Ohio, like Missouri's two NFL teams, the Chiefs and Rams, is winless so far this season.
Despite their same records, the Bengals and Browns might be headed in different directions -- based on their Week 3 performances. The Bengals pushed the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants into overtime at Giants Stadium before losing 26-23. The Bengals offense, dormant the first two weeks, showed up in Week 3. And the Bengals defense, young and playing without injured starting cornerback Johnathan Joseph (ankle), actually made the Giants earn every yard on the ground.
The Browns were dominated at Baltimore, losing 28-10 to the division rival Ravens. The Bengals lost 17-10 at Baltimore in the opener. Cleveland has lost two division games in a row, falling at home to Pittsburgh the week before, and risks falling to 0-4 and 0-3 in the AFC North if they should lose Sunday.
The Bengals could get to 1-3 and 1-1 in the division if they should handle the Browns.
"We did a lot of good things," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said after the Giants game, "but not enough, and not for long enough."
The Bengals, after terrible performances against the Ravens and Tennessee in their first two games, actually emerged somewhat re-energized from the overtime loss to the Giants.
"It's a heartfelt loss," said middle linebacker Dhani Jones, who led the defense with 15 tackles. "We can't change the fact we're 0-3, but we saw the ability we have on the field, against a great opponent. We'll move forward from it."
As odd as it might sound, the Bengals can legitimize the momentum they took out of the Meadowlands if they can win Sunday.
There were rumors earlier in the week that Browns coach Romeo Crennel might switch from Derek Anderson to second-year quarterback Brady Quinn in an attempt to pump life into an offense that has struggled in the first three games. Anderson will start, but Crennel said Wednesday, but Quinn "will be ready."
Whoever is playing quarterback for the Browns, the Bengals had better generate some pressure. So far, they have only one sack in three games, from end Antwan Odom in Week 2 against the Titans; the Bengals were last in the NFL with 22 sacks in 2007 and are on an even more anemic pace in the first three weeks of 2008. Anderson threw three interceptions at Baltimore.
The Bengals expect to get a steady diet of Browns tailback Jamal Lewis and will try to take tight end Kellen Winslow and wide receiver Braylon Edwards away from either Anderson or Quinn in pass defense. The Bengals' young secondary actually has played well, especially when considering the amount of time they have to stay in coverage because of the lack of a pass rush. Joseph is expected back this weekend.
The Bengals know this is a game they can win. They felt they should have defeated the Giants.
"At the end of the day, man, I just wish we would have won the game," said Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who had 12 receptions, one touchdown and 146 receiving yards against the Giants. "We've got to get rolling and take one, starting with the Browns. I know they feel the same."
SERIES HISTORY: 70th meeting. The Bengals lead the "Battle of Ohio" series 35-34, having won six of the past seven. The teams split two games, each winning at home. The Bengals have a 22-13 edge in games played against the Browns in Cincinnati.
--Carson Palmer has been sacked nine times this season, compared to just 17 last season. He was sacked six times Sunday at the Giants.
"I think so. I think I'm built for that. Having some extra cushion, being 245 pounds, it gives me a little extra cushion for when those big guys are on you," Palmer said when asked if he could withstand the pounding. "But in no way do I want to get sacked six times. But I really don't think that will happen again. With the guys we have up front and the corrections we've already made, and some of the things we've done this year, some of that will take away some of the confusion we've had. And it's just as much on me as it is anybody else. I need to get rid of the ball in certain situations and do a better job of that, taking away some of the hits from myself."
--QB Carson Palmer is 4-0 against the Browns as a starter at home.
--The four-game league suspension of wide receiver Chris Henry is expected to be lifted Monday. If he were signed to the 53-man roster, Henry would be eligible to play Oct. 5 at Dallas.
"We will not have to make a move Monday with Chris Henry, so you can relax that one too," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said Wednesday. "I think he may be off suspension, but I don't think that forces us to make a move."
The Bengals will have to apply to the league for the roster exemption and the NFL office must approve it. A roster move would have to be made before Henry could play in a game.
--Marvin Lewis isn't worried about his future and how the outcome of the game Sunday would or could affect him. "Oh, I don't think it has a bearing on my future," he said. "It's serious to me, but it's got nothing to do with my future. And if it does, I'm not going to lose any sleep over it."
--Browns RB Jamal Lewis has averaged 119.3 yards rushing in 13 career games against the Bengals.
--LB Dhani Jones leads the Bengals with 32 tackles.
BY THE NUMBERS: 0-4 -- The Bengals will be trying to avoid their first 0-4 start since 2002, when they finished a franchise-worst 2-14.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "You can't expect anything in rivalry games. We've had had shootouts with them, we've had low-scoring defensive struggles. You can't prepare for one or the other; you can't expect one or the other. You just need to come out and worry about yourself and you need to worry about it as an offense." -- Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, when asked about the "Battle of Ohio" rivalry game against the Browns on Sunday.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Bengals made a pair of roster moves on the off-day Tuesday designed to bring some experience to a very young secondary. They signed free-agent cornerback Jamar Fletcher to a one-year contract. He is an eighth-year NFL player with 94 games played and 10 starts. He played with the Texans last year. He was a former first-round pick of Miami in 2001 from Wisconsin.
The Bengals waived cornerback Geoffrey Pope, a first-year player from Howard who played on special teams in the loss Sunday at the Giants. The club also released rookie wide receiver Maurice Purify from its practice squad. Pope is expected to land back on the practice squad. Fletcher practiced Wednesday with the Bengals.
--CB Johnathan Joseph, who missed the Sunday game at the Giants, did not practice Wednesday, but he said his ankle is feeling better and he did straight-line running.
--DT John Thornton, another starter, did not practice Wednesday because of a knee injury.
--TE Ben Utecht was limited in practice Wednesday because of the chest injury he sustained on the first play of the Week 2 game against Tennessee. He said he is dealing with pain.
--CB Jamar Fletcher, signed Tuesday, said he expects to be on the field immediately and is confident his experience can help a young Bengals defensive secondary that is short on numbers. He was limited in practice Wednesday because of illness.
--S Chinedum Ndukwe, who had two interceptions of Derek Anderson Dec. 23 in the Bengals' 19-14 upset of the Browns, was limited in practice Wednesday with a groin injury. He was the college roommate at Notre Dame of Browns backup quarterback Brady Quinn.
GAME PLAN: Coach Marvin Lewis on Monday appealed to Bengals fans, though many are disenchanted by the team's 0-3 start, to show up, be loud and make a difference Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals would like nothing more than to get a lead and keep it. Pass protection broke down Sunday at the Giants, when Carson Palmer was sacked six times. When he stayed upright, he was hot, throwing for 286 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. The Bengals think they can throw on the Browns. If they get a lead, the Bengals can make the Browns one-dimensional offensively, essentially taking bruising running back Jamal Lewis out of the picture and forcing Derek Anderson or Brady Quinn to throw more than they normally would. The Bengals actually might end with a couple sacks then. The Bengals will face a lot of Jamal Lewis; the former Ravens tailback has a 119.3-yard average in 13 career meetings against the Bengals.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Bengals RB Chris Perry vs. Browns run defense. Cleveland is allowing 145 yards a game on the ground, and Perry -- the Bengals' featured back for the first time in his five-year pro career, has improved each week. He has run 60 times for 180 yards, just a 3.0-yard average, but he is making better reads of his blockers and cutting away from traffic. He ran 25 yards for a touchdown against the Giants and looks to be gaining confidence each week.
Bengals WRs T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chad Ocho Cinco vs. Browns CBs Brandon McDonald and Eric Wright. McDonald is playing better than Wright at cornerback in terms of coverage and run support. Ocho Cinco nemesis Leigh Bodden is no longer with the Browns; he was one cornerback in the NFL who could single-cover Ocho Cinco and make him earn every catch. So far this season, defenses are double-teaming Ocho Cinco and rolling coverage his way. Houshmandzadeh is getting a lot of attention too, though he had a big game against the Giants. Third receiver Antonio Chatman has given the Bengals a boost too. He had six catches for 70 yards at New York. He has been open in the middle in single coverage against a safety if defenses pay too much attention outside.
INJURY IMPACT: Third cornerback David Jones (knee) was limited in practice, meaning newly acquired CB Jamar Fletcher might play Sunday. Starting CB Johnathan Joseph, who missed the Giants game because of a sprained ankle, did not practice Wednesday. ... DT John Thornton, another starter, did not practice Wednesday because of a knee injury. He is expected to start Sunday.