The Best the Browns will Face?

Despite Minnesota and others on the schedule, the Bengals may be toughest opponent the Browns face.

The Minnesota Vikings?

Yeah, pretty good.

The Pittsburgh Steelers?

Yeah, pretty good, too.

The Green Bay Packers and Denver Broncos?

Not bad, either.

But when it's all said and done, the Cincinnati Bengals may be the best team the Browns will play this season.

The Bengals are 7-3 and in first place by a game over the 6-4 Steelers as they get ready to host the 1-9 Browns on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.

The Bengals swept the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers this year, 23-20 and 18-12. They won in Green Bay (6-4) 31-24 and lost 12-7 to Denver (6-4) in the opener on a tipped 87-yard touchdown pass with 11 seconds remaining.

Cincinnati will play the 10-1 Vikings on Dec. 13 at Minnesota.

In fact, this may be the best Bengals team since the one that went to the Super Bowl following the 1988 season.

Whoa! Is this team better than the one that finished 11-5 and won the AFC North crown in 2005, scoring a whopping 421 points?

In that year, quarterback Carson Palmer threw for 3,836 yards and 32 TDs with just 12 interceptions and had a passing rating of 101.1.

Wide receiver Chad Ochocinco caught 97 passes for 1,432 yards and nine TDs, while Rudi Johnson rushed for 1,458 yards and 14 TDs.

Kicker Shayne Graham scored 131 points.

The Bengals aren't approaching those individual numbers this season, and probably won't, either.

Through 10 games, Palmer has passed for 2,217 yards and 14 TDs with eight interceptions for an 87.2 rating.

Ochocinco leads the team with 50 receptions for 735 yards and five scores.

Johnson is long gone, and Cedric Benson has 859 yards rushing for six TDs.

Graham has scored 57 points.

But this defense is much, much better than the one the Bengals had in 2005. That year, they were a sieve, giving up 350 points, 23rd-worst in the NFL. In the second quarter alone, the Bengals surrendered 102 points.

This year, Cincinnati has given up just 167 points, third-best in the league.

The 2005 season ended abruptly for the Bengals, when, with Palmer being lost for the game on the first play after blowing out his knee, they fell 31-17 to Pittsburgh at home in the first round of the playoffs.

Palmer, the heart and soul of the Bengals since taking over as the starter in 2004, got hurt early last year as well. The team never recovered, going 4-11-1.

"I didn't do a good job of readying the team to move on without Carson," Bengals seventh-year head coach Marvin Lewis said of 2008 in a conference call with the Cleveland media on Wednesday. "By the end of the year, we had figured it out."

Indeed. With young Ryan Fitzpatrick at the helm, the Bengals won their last three games, including a 14-0 decision over the Browns at Cleveland.

The momentum the Bengals had in that end-of-the-season surge seems to have carried over into this season. After losing that opener to Denver, the Bengals won their next four and, aside from rare slip-ups like last Sunday's 20-17 road loss to the woebegone Oakland Raiders, they have just kept rolling.

"We're a more mature football team this year, we've developed death and we have a workmanlike attitude," Lewis said. "I thought going into this season that if we made football plays, we'd be successful and stay in most games."

That has happened. In addition to the losses to Oakland and Denver, the Bengals lost by 11 at Houston (28-17). No blowouts here by any stretch of the imagination.

All this is well and good, but the question remains: Are these Bengals better than the 2005 version?

"We still have six games left, so I can't answer that question right now," Lewis said. "But in that playoff game in 2005, our team was ahead at halftime (17-14). If we make the playoffs this year and we're ahead at halftime in the first game and we don't have our quarterback again, this team will do a better job."

Sounds like an answer to us, which could be bad news for the Browns on Sunday, and then also for the playoff field later on.

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