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NFL Preview - Cleveland (4-6) at Cincinnati (6-4)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Keep it up, Bengals, and you might just make this interesting.
In spite of consecutive losses to AFC powerhouses Pittsburgh and Baltimore, the unheralded boys from Cincinnati find themselves squarely in the thick of the conference playoff race instead of plotting draft-day war room strategy as this season enters Week 12.
The Bengals are third in the AFC North behind the Ravens and Steelers, but have a one-game lead on a quartet of teams (Denver, Tennessee, the New York Jets and Buffalo) for the second of two Wild Card postseason berths. They host division rival Cleveland this Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium seeking to maintain that edge.
Cincinnati's 27-17 win in Cleveland on Sept. 11 was its 11th in its last 14 games with the Browns and the Bengals (6-4) have won six of seven most recent home meetings in the series, though they enter this week's clash with a pair of seven-point defeats in their last two games.
Rookie quarterback Andy Dalton was intercepted at Pittsburgh's 19-yard line in the fourth quarter of a 24-17 loss on Nov. 13, and Cincinnati couldn't get past Baltimore's seven-yard line on its final drive during a 31-24 defeat last week.
Dalton threw for a career-best 373 yards against Baltimore. He also tossed his 15th touchdown pass, joining Peyton Manning and Dan Marino as the only first- year signal-callers to reach that mark in 10 games since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
On the flip side, he's also thrown five interceptions in the last two games, including three against the Ravens.
"Three mistakes and all three of them I can live with," Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said afterward. "[Dalton] did a great job for the most part, having to come from behind and throw  times. He kept us in it."
Dalton missed the second half of the September game against Cleveland with an injured right wrist. His replacement, Bruce Gradkowski, threw a decisive 41- yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green in the fourth quarter.
Green missed the Baltimore game with a hyperextended right knee, but is expected to be back for this week's test.
In spite of the Browns' subpar 4-6 record, Cleveland's defense has allowed a league-low 166.5 passing yards per game and is fifth in total yards allowed at 305.8 per game.
Problem is, the offense is averaging just 14.5 points and 298.1 yards.
The Browns are 3-1 in games decided by four points or fewer, however, and are coming off a 14-10 home victory over Jacksonville last week.
"I like suspense," offensive tackle Tony Pashos said. "But man, this is a little too much."
Running back Montario Hardesty may return for Cleveland this week after missing three games with an injured calf. Fill-in Chris Ogbonnaya had a career-high 115 yards against the Jaguars.
"I think Chris has been very productive," Browns head coach Pat Shurmur said. "He's done things for our team that will warrant him playing, at least some, when our other guys come back. We'll just see how it goes when they come back. I'm not concerned about that. That's a good problem to have, when you have a line of guys that you feel good about."
Usual starting back Peyton Hillis is expected to miss a sixth straight game with an injured hamstring and fullback Owen Marecic is having lingering issues after sustaining a concussion last week. Tight end Alex Smith might start in Marecic's place.
Hillis had 57 yards on 17 carries in the opener against the Bengals, when Cincinnati�s Cedric Benson rushed for 121 yards and a touchdown. Benson hasn't topped that total in eight subsequent games.
Cleveland quarterback Colt McCoy connected on a career-best 76 percent of his attempts during his lone start in Cincinnati last December, a 19-17 Browns loss. McCoy completed just 19-of-40 throws against the Bengals in September's meeting, however.
The Bengals now have a 40-36 edge in their all-time series with the Browns following their above-mentioned victory in Week 1, and have prevailed in five of the last six meetings between the in-state rivals. That includes a 19-17 triumph at Paul Brown Stadium, where Cleveland hasn't left with a win since a 20-12 decision in 2008, in December of last year. The Bengals also handed the Browns a 16-7 loss in Cincinnati during the 2009 campaign, but were upended by Cleveland on the road by a 23-20 score in Week 4 of last season.
Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis sports an 11-6 career record against the Browns over his eight-year run as the Bengals' head coach, while Shurmur lost his only previous run-in with both Cincinnati and Lewis with the Week 1 verdict.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
In two career games against the Bengals, McCoy has completed 38-of-65 passes (58.5 percent) for 456 yards with four touchdowns, an interception and a 94.1 passer rating. In his past three starts in November, the second-year quarterback has a 90.2 passer rating. Ogbonnaya had a career-high 115 rushing yards last week and is averaging 102.5 rushing yards per game in Cleveland's past two outings. He posted his first career rushing touchdown as well last week. Tight end Benjamin Watson has 16 catches for 197 receiving yards in his past three games against Cincinnati and needs two catches to reach 100 with the Browns. Wide receiver Greg Little, a second-round pick in last April's draft, leads NFL rookies with 42 receptions. In five career games against Cincinnati, wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi averages 18.1 yards per catch (14 receptions, 253 yards), while fellow wideout Joshua Cribbs has three touchdown catches in his past four games.
For the Cincinnati defense, cornerback Nate Clements recorded his first interception as a Bengal last week and tackle Geno Atkins has three sacks in his past four games. Outside linebacker Thomas Howard has 54 tackles and two forced fumbles on the season.
Statistically speaking, the Browns are 28th in scoring offense (14.5 ppg), 29th in total yards (298.1 ypg), 23rd in passing (205.0 ypg) and 29th in rushing (93.1 ypg). The Bengals' defense is eighth in points allowed (19.5 ppg), sixth in total yards allowed (311.1 ypg), 11th against the pass (222.5 ypg) and third against the run (88.6 ypg).
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
As previously noted, Dalton has 15 passing touchdowns on the season, tied with Hall of Famer Dan Marino (1983) and Peyton Manning (1998) for the most by a rookie through his team's first 10 games since the 1970 merger. The second- round draft choice also needs one touchdown pass to surpass Greg Cook (15 in 1969) for the most by a rookie in club annals. Dalton had a career-best 373 passing yards last week and had a touchdown pass, zero interceptions and a 102.4 passer rating in the season opener against Cleveland. In his past two games against the Browns, Benson has rushed for 271 yards with two touchdowns, and the veteran tied a career-best with two rushing touchdowns last week. Green, the fourth overall pick in this past draft, leads NFL rookies in receiving yards (635) and touchdown catches (6) and had a 41-yard go-ahead touchdown catch in his only meeting with the Browns. Wide receiver Jerome Simpson had a career-best 152 receiving yards on eight receptions, while counterpart Andre Caldwell has two touchdowns in his past three games.
Rookie linemen Jabaal Sheard (3.5 sacks) and Phil Taylor (4) have combined for 7 1.2 sacks for Cleveland's tough defense, while middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson had a career-high two sacks in the Week 1 loss to the Bengals. Second- year cornerback Joe Haden has 39 tackles and a sack to lead the secondary.
By the numbers, the Bengals are 12th in scoring offense (23.6 ppg), 18th in total yards (329.2 ypg), 17th in passing (223.1 ypg) and 19th in rushing (106.1 ypg). The Browns are seventh in scoring defense (19.3 ppg), fifth in total yards allowed (305.8 ypg), first against the pass (166.5 ypg) and 29th against the run (139.3 ypg).
KEYS TO THE GAME
Dalton has been bitter and sweet over the last two weeks, though his five interceptions have to be a concern against a team that's first in the league defending the pass.
The flip side of Cleveland's solid pass defense is porous run stopping for the Browns, who'll likely get extended doses of Benson while the Bengals take the heat off Dalton. Benson's productive running was a big factor in Cincinnati's win over its rival earlier in the season.
The Browns' running back-by-committee approach may have uncovered a jewel in Ogbonnaya, who went for his career-best total last week. Cincinnati's third- best run defense will be tested, and any help the struggling McCoy can get from the ground game would be a plus.
Another matchup with an in-state rival -- one that's positioned between the Steelers, Ravens and a Steelers rematch -- could be a tricky proposition for the still-not-programmed-to-be-elite Bengals, who've traditionally struggled in important games in the past. That said, Cincinnati has passed a handful of earlier tests on the 2011 schedule that might have exposed them as pretenders. It's been so far, so good for Cincinnati, and the fact that this one is at home probably saves any chance at embarrassment here.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bengals 17, Browns 13
11/25 12:42:23 ET