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NFL Preview - Cincinnati (8-4-1) at Cleveland (7-6)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Ready or not, here comes Johnny Football.
With their playoff chances starting to fade, the Cleveland Browns hope to get a jolt under center this Sunday when rookie Johnny Manziel makes his first career start in a home matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Browns selected Manziel with the 22nd overall pick of the 2014 draft, the second of two first-round selections for the club.
Despite his highlight-reel resume at Texas A&M that helped earn him the Heisman Trophy, Manziel was unable to beat out Brian Hoyer for the starting job at the start of the season. Cleveland started 6-3 under Hoyer, but his play has come under fire as of late with the Browns losing three of their past four.
Manziel made his NFL debut in late relief action versus Buffalo on Nov. 30, with the 22-year-old completing 5-of-9 pass attempts for 63 yards while also scoring a rushing touchdown.
Head coach Mike Pettine decided to stick with Hoyer for this past Sunday's game versus the Indianapolis Colts, but the now-former starter didn't impress with just 140 yards passing in a 25-24 loss.
Thanks to a pair of defensive touchdowns, the Browns were in position to win until the Colts' Andrew Luck threw a one-yard touchdown pass to T.Y. Hilton with 32 seconds left in the fourth quarter. That gave Cleveland consecutive losses for the first time this season.
Linebacker Craig Robertson recovered a fumble in the end zone and rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert had a 23-yard pick-six in the third quarter, his first career interception.
Hoyer, though, was picked off twice and the only offensive touchdown for the Browns came on a nine-yard run by Isaiah Crowell.
"Obviously, very disappointed," said Pettine. "When you lose a close game like that, for the most part our guys played at a high level."
Pettine, though, apparently doesn't think that was the case with Hoyer, so Manziel will become the 21st different QB to start a game for the Browns since 1999.
"This decision is really not about Brian Hoyer or Johnny Manziel, it is about the Cleveland Browns," Pettine said. "We are always going to make decisions that we feel are in the best interest of the team."
Manziel, who has been plagued with questions about his off-the-field lifestyle and dedication to the position, had another chip put on his shoulder when Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis referred to the 6-foot, 210-pound Manziel as a midget during the team's radio show on Monday night.
Lewis has since apologized for the remarks, but shined more negative light on a Bengals club that is coming off a 42-21 pounding at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Cincinnati had a three-game win streak halted and allowed the race for first place in the AFC North to get tighter. The Bengals lead the pack at 8-4-1, while the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens both trail at 8-5. The Browns remain in the mix as well at 7-6.
The Bengals led 21-17 over the Steelers after the third quarter, but Pittsburgh outscored Cincinnati 25-0 in the fourth, a quarter in which it gained 229 of its 543 total net yards.
"I'm sort of at a loss for words," said Bengals linebacker Vincent Rey. "Let me just say that I know we can play better, myself first and everyone else, too. We start back on that road beginning this week."
Andy Dalton threw for 302 yards, hooking up with wide receiver A.J. Green for an 81-yard touchdown and running for a 20-yard score. But he also lost a key fourth-quarter fumble.
Green caught 11 passes for a career-best 224 yards.
The pressure to win this game is just as great for the Bengals as it is for the Browns. Cincinnati must host the mighty Denver Broncos next week before ending the regular season with a rematch at Pittsburgh.
Also, Cleveland has already beaten Cincinnati this season, picking up a 24-3 road win back on Nov. 6. The Browns got rushing touchdowns from Ben Tate (since waived), Crowell and Terrance West, while Dalton was picked off three times and held to 86 yards passing.
It marked the Brown's third victory in their last four versus the Bengals.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Many will question Pettine's decision to wait as long as he did to turn to Manziel, especially given that Hoyer had just one touchdown pass to eight interceptions over the club's current 1-3 stretch.
Over 13 games this season, Hoyer has thrown for 3,196 yards with 11 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
"Although I am disappointed by coach's decision, I respect him and his choice and will be there to support Johnny," Hoyer said. "As always, I will do whatever I can to help this team win."
Pettine hopes that Manziel can do that on the field. The flashy quarterback hasn't really had a chance to really show what he can do, but is known for his ability to create plays and will look to prove he has the arm, speed and confidence to handle the NFL.
"Brian has done everything that has been asked of him and he has done so as a true professional," said Pettine. "It's never just any one position when a unit is not functioning at the level you'd like. We are trying to get the offense to perform at a higher level. Johnny has worked very hard to earn this opportunity and it will be very important for every member of the offense to elevate their play for us to obtain our desired result."
Said Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas, "I'm excited to see what Johnny can do. He did some good things for us in the preseason and when he was in there against Buffalo."
One player who should be excited to see Manziel under center is playmaking wide receiver Josh Gordon.
Gordon had a monster 2013 season with 87 catches for 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns, but missed the first 10 games of this campaign due to suspension. He had a big season debut with eight receptions and 120 yards in Week 12 at Atlanta, but has been held to nine catches and 90 yards the past two weeks. Gordon made only two catches versus the Colts.
Gordon had 125 yards and a touchdown on five catches the last time he faced the Bengals.
Cleveland's defense relies on shutting down opponents quarterbacks and the Browns lead the NFL with 19 interceptions. Cornerback Buster Skrine picked up two of his four picks this season versus the Bengals, while safety Tashaun Gipson leads the league with six picks.
Gipson, though, has missed the past two games with a knee injury and is out this weekend as well.
The play of linebacker Paul Kruger has helped the defense as well. Kruger leads the team with nine sacks, the most by a Browns player since Kamerion Wimbley's 11 in 2006, and has a career-high three forced fumbles.
Linebacker Karlos Dansby, meanwhile, has a chance to return this weekend for the Browns from a knee injury suffered on Nov. 16.
Though the Bengals have two capable runners in Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, it will be hard for them to pass up testing Cleveland's secondary again due to the presence of Green.
Green's 224 yards versus Pittsburgh were the second-most in a single game in Bengals history behind only Chad Johnson's 260 in 2006.
Green's previous high was 183 yards set in 2012 and he has gone over 100 yards in three of his past four games as he seems to have fully moved past a toe ailment that plagued him earlier this season.
"When you've got a guy like A.J., you want to get him the ball," Dalton said after the Steelers game. "We had a lot of really good looks today, and we hit big plays. Down the stretch, we've got to rely on A.J. He's such a big play waiting to happen."
After getting blitzed by the Steelers' offense, the Bengals are now tied for 28th in the NFL with 377.8 yards allowed per game. They also learned this week they won't have linebacker Vontaze Burfict for the rest of the season as he was placed on injured reserve Tuesday because of a knee issue that had caused him to miss the past six games.
Luckily for Lewis' defense, Rey has proven to be a capable option. He has made 10 starts while playing in all 13 games, with injuries opening the door for increased time.
Rey has responded with a club-high 97 tackles, with 15 of those coming versus the Steelers.
"Vinny is a great example of the concept that it's not how you get here, it's what you do when you get here," said Lewis. "He's a smart player, a dedicated worker and a physical player. He's earned everything he's gotten and we are very fortunate to have him."
Though there will be pressure on Manziel given that the Browns are still very much in the playoff hunt, making his debut at home should help things a bit. The Bengals know this and Dalton said his club needs to get off to a good start.
"The better you are early on in the games, you can take away the crowd and all that kind of stuff," said Dalton. "But we know the kind of atmosphere we're going to get. So we've just got to be ready to come out firing."
Cincinnati got next to nothing offensively when it last played Cleveland and would love to return to the favor this weekend. The key will be forcing Manziel into trying to do too much and a veteran coach like Lewis should have his defense ready.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Bengals 23, Browns 20
12/14 09:27:52 ET