Cincinnati Bengals: cleveland browns
Join us today at 1 p.m. ET, 10 a.m. PT for NFL Nation TV's Spreecast Episode 49 as we welcome in draft hopeful Brett Hundley and break down the latest in offseason league news.
Host Paul Gutierrez (San Francisco 49ers reporter) and co-hosts Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and Mike Wells (Indianapolis Colts reporter) will be joined all show by Jeremy Fowler (Cleveland Browns and ESPN senior reporter), in addition to Hundley and two other NFL Nation reporters. Wells and Gutierrez will provide updates from the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix.
Fresh off a record-setting career at UCLA, Hundley is one of the many former college players hoping to be claimed in this year's draft that begins April 30. He's regarded as one of the top quarterbacks in this year's class. He'll stop by for a few moments to discuss his pre-draft journey, and how prepared he believes he is for the NFL.
Ben Goessling (Minnesota Vikings reporter) will fill us in on the latest in the Adrian Peterson saga. Are the words of Peterson's agent a benefit or a hindrance? Also, what was up with the camel-riding birthday celebration the embattled rusher had over the weekend?
Fowler will help close things down by discussing the latest in the Browns' quarterback soap opera, and the television show they could be featured on later this summer.
Viewers are encouraged to log in and ask the panelists questions as well as contribute in the chat feature.
- Hill evokes Bell: One week after Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell torched the Bengals for 185 yards on the ground, Hill did his best rendition of his rival rusher. More than any trait Bell possesses, patience arguably is his best one. Many of Hill's 148 yards came after he showcased his own patience running through the line. "We watched a cut-up on him a few weeks ago," Hill said of Bell. "We kind of stole a few more moves from him, just being patient like that. A lot of guys just get the ball and just run downhill and just run into people. But sometimes, you've just really got to set up your blocks. ... It's just being patient and hitting it when you find that crease."
- Mocking money signs: Bengals defenders weren't the only ones doing Johnny Manziel's "money sign" this weekend in Cleveland. A couple of Bengals said Browns fans were flashing the signs at them as they walked around town while going to dinner Saturday night. Linebacker Rey Maualuga, who was flagged for taunting after flashing Manziel's sign in the quarterback's face after a deflection, said he didn't respond to the fans. "Whatever we would have said to them that night won't change the facts or change the outcome of the game," Maualuga said at his locker. "Just let it go in one ear and out the other. Eat dinner and just make sure to walk out of there as fast as you can before some crazy things go on."
CLEVELAND -- A few thoughts on the Cincinnati Bengals' 30-0 victory over the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium:
What it means: When they found out they would have to prepare for rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel this week, the Bengals had no idea what to expect. They knew all about Manziel's exploits as a Heisman Trophy winner, but since he hadn't started an NFL game yet and only had 17 snaps of regular-season film, preparing for him was difficult. Would he still be apt to escape the pocket and run when he probably would be better served to pass? Would he be a good passer? Deep down, it didn't matter much to the Bengals, who completely overwhelmed the young quarterback. Manziel was sacked three times, threw two interceptions and compiled a 27.3 passer rating. Overall, the Bengals, still on the playoff bubble, had a truly physical win in their first road shutout since December 2008. The Bengals' last three road shutouts have all come in Cleveland.
Big boost from D: Clearly, Cincinnati's defense trended upward this week after giving up 25 points in a fourth-quarter collapse last week against Pittsburgh. In addition to stifling Manziel, the Bengals quieted the Browns' run. Cleveland finished with 107 total yards. They had 98 entering their one-play last drive.
Game ball: Five weeks after he said the Browns weren't very good following their 24-3 win against Cincinnati, Bengals rookie running back Jeremy Hill let his play do the emphatic talking Sunday. He ran 25 times for 148 yards and two touchdowns in the win. He set the tone early in the game, too, putting up two rushing scores before halftime. At the end of one of them, a Browns fan pushed Hill's helmet down when the back tried to leap into the stands where a couple of Bengals fans had lured him over. It was clearly a statement type of performance for Hill, who had just 55 yards in the teams' last meeting at the start of November. His fellow running back, Giovani Bernard, finished the game with 79 yards on 15 carries after being demoted earlier this week from the No. 1 back duties.
Kirkpatrick breaks out: Placed down on the Bengals' depth chart behind three 30-something former first-round picks, third-year cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick has been itching for a chance to prove himself in the secondary. He has admitted in the past to being a little frustrated by his placement on the depth chart. On Sunday, he had plenty of chances to prove himself. Aside from a 32-yard pass he allowed to Josh Gordon, Kirkpatrick played well, intercepting a pass and deflecting another. On the first-half pickoff, he made a great read when Manziel rolled left and stared down that side of the field. After dropping off his receiver, Kirkpatrick changed direction and sprinted in front of him as Manziel threw his way. On the ensuing drive, the Bengals took a 10-0 lead on a 44-yard Mike Nugent field goal, one of three he had six days after his father died suddenly.
What's next? Cincinnati will get an extra day off this week as its push for the postseason continues. The Bengals welcome the Denver Broncos to Paul Brown Stadium next Monday night for their home finale on ESPN. It will be their first game against the defending AFC champions since 2012, when the Broncos won 31-23. Denver also has won the past four meetings, and is the winner of 12 of the last 15. With help in Week 17, a win against Denver could give the Bengals the AFC's No. 2 seed.
Gresham was declared inactive, along with six other Bengals.
The fifth-year player was on the field about two and a half hours prior to the start of the game running routes and trying to cut while catching passes from backup quarterback AJ McCarron. He didn't look comfortable, particularly when trying to catch. As he would plant to go up for catches, he awkwardly reached for the balls. He had a couple of one-handed grabs that likely would have been much easier two-handed snags if he were healthier.
Gresham, whose rookie contract expires in the offseason, will miss a game for the first time this season. His departure also puts the Bengals in a bit of a bind, considering tight ends Tyler Eifert and Alex Smith are still on injured reserve. Smith is on season-ending IR, and Eifert was placed on IR in Week 2 with a designation to return after dislocating his right elbow in the season opener. He was eligible to play five weeks ago, but he has not yet returned to practice.
Without Eifert, Gresham or Smith, the Bengals will turn to third-string backup Kevin Brock, who will be starting for just the second time this season.
Expect the Bengals to also go heavy on their offensive line with a series of unbalanced sets. Reserve offensive tackles Eric Winston and Marshall Newhouse likely will come off the bench as extra blockers to line up next to recently named starting right tackle Clint Boling. Previously the Bengals' starting left guard, Boling moved to right tackle two weeks ago as the Bengals attempted to replace Andre Smith. The starting right tackle was placed on season-ending IR after tearing his triceps the week before.
Along with Gresham, veteran cornerback Terence Newman also was declared inactive Sunday. The 36-year-old has an ankle injury that limited him in practices throughout the week. He'll be replaced by Adam Jones, another veteran who was in and out of practice this week with a chest issue. For those reasons, don't be surprised to see third-year corner Dre Kirkpatrick and rookie Darqueze Dennard get extended playing time as reserves.
Here's the complete list of inactives for both teams Sunday:
QB AJ McCarron
WR Dane Sanzenbacher
CB Terence Newman
OT Tanner Hawkinson
TE Jermaine Gresham
WR James Wright
DE Margus Hunt
DB K'Waun Williams
DB Tashaun Gipson
RB Glenn Winston
DB Robert Nelson
LB Karlos Dansby
OL Vinston Painter
TE Gary Barnidge
Keying Manziel's read-option: Johnny Manziel is built a little differently than other read-option quarterbacks the NFL has seen in recent seasons. His comparatively smaller size makes him, like Russell Wilson, a slightly tougher signal-caller to defend. Add in the fact that he's making his first career start and there's little film on him, and the Bengals have quite the challenge on their hands. With respect to how much the Bengals can expect to see Manziel run the read-option, Carolina's Cam Newton might be a good comparison. Newton rushed 17 times for 107 yards when the Panthers came to Cincinnati, and the vast majority of his carries came off the read-option. When the Browns saw that on film, they had to feel good about getting Manziel involved in that aspect of the game. If they do run the read-option with him, keep an eye on how well the Bengals stretch the field and seal off running lanes for the elusive quarterback.
Dalton's redemption: Andy Dalton will be out to redeem himself after his putrid performance in the 24-3 home loss to Cleveland on national television five weeks ago. In one of the ugliest quarterback displays in a generation, Dalton had a passer rating of 2.0. His QBR that Thursday night totaled 4.3. According to numbers from ESPN Stats & Information, his problems with the Browns go beyond that performance. His last three games against them haven't gone very well, the last two in particular. Amazingly, he had a worse QBR in the Bengals' 41-20 win over the Browns at the end of last season. He had a 3.7 QBR in that contest, per Stats & Information. In his last two games against the Browns, he has a 38.3 completion percentage, an average of 89.5 passing yards per game, a combined total QBR of 4.0 and has thrown three touchdowns to five interceptions. He hopes to exorcise those Dawg Pound demons.
Hill goes for redemption, too: Five weeks after he said the Browns weren't a very good team, Bengals rookie running back Jeremy Hill has his first chance to back up his claims since his 55-yard, one-fumble night. And he'll have his chance. On Thursday, fellow running back Giovani Bernard told reporters Hill was going to get the start in the backfield. It makes sense, as Hill has been the better at both yards and average this season. As he goes against a defense eager to make him regret his post-game words, the rookie will be looking to build upon other starts he's had this season. In two of three weeks he relieved an injured Bernard, Hill topped 150 yards on the ground.
Matchup of the game: Green vs. Haden: Dalton isn't the only Bengal to struggle against the Browns. A.J. Green hasn't fared well against them, either. As passer and catcher, clearly their struggles correlate. For Green, the issue has been Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden, a defensive back who has caused him problems ever since the two matched up in college at Georgia and Florida, respectively. In their last two meetings, Green has been targeted 15 times when matched up with Haden but only has 30 yards receiving. It'll be interesting to see how the matchup shakes out this week, though, considering how well Green has played of late. He has 33 receptions for 529 yards the last four weeks, and even torched fellow division nemesis Ike Taylor last week en route to a career day.
A day after appearing on the Bengals' injury report with limited practice participation, tight end Jermaine Gresham didn't practice at all Friday. He's been dealing part of the week with a toe injury.
On Friday, he was listed along with a pair of cornerbacks as questionable for the game.
Already without Tyler Eifert, the Bengals would have to get creative in replacing Gresham if he isn't able to play this weekend. Backup Kevin Brock would certainly get more action, and H-back Ryan Hewitt's role might get modified some as he's pulled up to the line of scrimmage from his usual blocking position as a fullback in the backfield. Offensive tackles Eric Winston and Marshall Newhouse also could be in play as additional blockers in unbalanced line sets.
Keep those scenarios in mind just in case. About an hour before the injury report was released, coach Marvin Lewis said Gresham was fine and that he expected him to play.
Even if Gresham plays, at the very least, don't be surprised if at various points in Sunday's game the Bengals come out with a heavy offensive line that includes Winston on Newhouse as additional blockers off the edge. The Bengals have been doing that all season, and have really adopted the practice in recent weeks with starting right tackle Andre Smith done for the year with a triceps injury. As the Bengals keep testing out using left guard Clint Boling at right tackle, they have tried to give him and other tackles blocking help.
Along with Gresham, Adam Jones and Terence Newman's status will be worth watching during pre-game. There's high likelihood both play even after being limited in Friday's workout. Fellow cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was listed as probable after suffering a ribs injury in last week's loss to Pittsburgh.
Expect to also see kicker Mike Nugent in Cleveland, although he hasn't practiced all week. He's currently going through a personal issue, despite being listed as probable to play.
Here's the full pre-game injury report:
LB Vontaze Burfict (knee -- placed on IR on Tuesday)
DE Margus Hunt (ankle)
WR James Wright (knee)
TE Jermaine Gresham (toe)
CB Adam Jones (chest)
CB Terence Newman (ankle)
CB Dre Kirkpatrick (ribs)
OG Mike Pollak (knee)
K Mike Nugent (non-injury related)
S Shawn Williams (chest)
How things have changed.
It certainly didn't appear there was any chance of that being the case five weeks ago when the Cincinnati Bengals quarterback had the worst single-game passing performance by an NFL signal-caller in 31 years. He barely registered a passer rating in it, credited with a 2.0.
So, given how low Dalton sank in the blowout, what explains his improvement since?
"It's that everybody is on the same page," head coach Marvin Lewis said. "We have to get to the right spots, he has to deliver accurate balls, protections and routes have to match. When they don't match, things are going to be bad."
Sure, there has been some bad play mixed into Dalton's most recent performances. Of note were the three interceptions he threw in the first half of a narrow win against Tampa Bay two weeks ago. But as rough as those interceptions were, Dalton actually earned respect among his teammates when he came out in the second half of that game and completed a touchdown pass while keeping the team in the action just long enough to record the 14-13 win.
What really earned their high esteem, though, was the fact that he did all of that on three IVs, and after being hit hit with a vicious 24-hour stomach bug that swept through the team that week, Dalton did just enough to help his team win.
Also in the past four weeks, he has rallied the team for a 3-1 record and hasn't had a completion percentage under 68 percent. Twice in that stretch he also posted passer ratings higher than 120.0, the only times this season they have been that high. He's also had his two highest total QBR figures of the season, going over 90.0 twice in the past four games.
Dalton hasn't just improved since the abysmal Thursday night. He's taken leaps.
"You don't want to have a rock-bottom moment to get everybody going, but it's one of those games, one of those things that happen during the season where you can go back and look at things, and get back to doing things the way that you want to," Dalton said. "Since that game, we've pretty much done that."
As the Bengals face the Browns on Sunday in the first matchup between the teams since last month, they must continue dictating the flow of the game. The last time Cleveland and Cincinnati played, the Browns' defense enforced the direction the game went.
Having a fully healthy A.J. Green can help, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said.
It's no surprise to him that his quarterback's recent success has correlated with the Pro Bowl receiver being on arguably the best four-game stretch of his career. Green has averaged 16 yards per catch in the past month.
"We don't make any excuses for it, but [Dalton] has gotten pieces back little-by-little," Jackson, the Bengals' first-year coordinator, said about the injuries Dalton has had to play around. "Here comes A.J. back. Here comes Gio [Bernard] back. You're getting guys back. I don't think people understand how much that upsets the rhythm of a quarterback, sometimes. Especially being in a somewhat different system, a little bit, things can get a little off."
It included all of Ohio, most of western Pennsylvania, almost all of West Virginia, a good chunk of Kentucky, and a few scattered places in Texas and South Florida.
After the Browns announced Manziel would be receiving his first career start, the coverage area expanded -- a lot.
ESPN's Darren Rovell tweeted out the photo of Fox's early-game coverage map. (Yes, Fox. This game is part of the league's cross-flex package where an all-AFC game that normally is played on CBS can wind up on FOX, and vice versa.) As you can see, a large swath of the southern half of the United States, significant portions of the Midwest and parts of the Mid-Atlantic will get to see the Bengals and Browns play.
It all begs the question: Is this now a "prime-time" game for the Bengals?
OK, no. It's not a prime-time game. We won't call it that. It doesn't quite meet enough of the criteria to be that type of game. But still, it's an important one for the Bengals. This is a chance for them to play on a big stage and showcase to a large chunk of the country what type of team they really have.
At 8-4-1, the Bengals hold the AFC's No. 4 seed. That alone should be indication they are pretty good. But a key down-the-stretch win over a rival who, with its well-hyped rookie quarterback, is standing in the way of a postseason berth would go a long way to convincing those outside the Queen City bubble how good they really are.
It's either play well and win, or crumble under the glare of the big spotlight as they have done time and again in nationally televised games.
Since 2011, the year Andy Dalton became their starting quarterback, the Bengals are a combined 2-9 in the playoffs and in Sunday, Monday and Thursday night games -- all times the Bengals have played in front of the entire country. Dalton has eight career touchdown passes in those 11 games to go with his 14 interceptions.
Cincinnati's most recent prime-time game went horribly. Dalton threw three interceptions and rookie running back Jeremy Hill lost a fumble in a 24-3 Thursday night loss last month at home to the Browns. It was arguably the worst performance by a league quarterback in 31 years, as Dalton notched a 2.0 passer rating. Since then, he has been mostly strong, leading the Bengals to a 3-1 record. While his turnover numbers have been high (four interceptions and a fumble), he still has completed more than 68 percent of his passes in all four games.
The Bengals may prefer to not think of Sunday's showdown as a prime-time game, but this is a big game -- as important as any they've had this season. If they want to prove to those who don't watch them on a regular basis that they are a good team, they will bully the Browns the same way they were bullied five weeks ago.
So do they believe there was any truth to the report from the Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal last month that the Cleveland Browns knew the Cincinnati Bengals' plays in the teams' Week 10 meeting?
"I'm sure there is some fact to it," Dalton said.
Jackson, the team's offensive coordinator, said he wouldn't be surprised if the Browns knew what plays were coming, either.
"Every good offense has tendencies," Jackson said about his 17th-ranked offense. "I'm sure there are certain things they saw that we do. There are certain things that they do that I know they do. At the end of the day, that's just part of football. We'll find out. Come Sunday, the tale of the tape will be there."
The Thursday night the Browns blew out the Bengals 24-3, Cleveland linebacker Karlos Dansby said he and his fellow defenders knew all but about a dozen plays Cincinnati was going to run as soon as its offense got to the line of scrimmage.
"We knew what was coming," Dansby told the Beacon Journal, "so we were all over it."
Dalton threw three interceptions and rookie running back Jeremy Hill turned the ball over when he fumbled at the end of a long run. The Bengals barely generated any offense in the game, collecting 165 yards in the air and on the ground. In easily the worst game of his career, Dalton completed just 10 passes and amassed a 2.0 passer rating, the lowest mark for an NFL quarterback in a game in 31 years.
"We knew exactly what they wanted to do, how they wanted to do it, when they wanted to do it," Dansby said. "We're calling out screens. We're calling out run plays. We're calling out everything right there on the field."
Even when Dalton called an audible at the line, Dansby told the newspaper he and his teammates knew what was about to happen.
Regardless how much the Browns, a team that signed former Bengals receiver Andrew Hawkins in the offseason, knew about the Bengals' offense, they have a strong defense. They enter Week 15 with the 20th-ranked unit, but are particularly effective against the pass. Cleveland's defense ranks sixth in opposing quarterbacks' QBR and ninth in passing defense.
Given Dansby's admission, will the Bengals be tweaking their on-field play calls and terminology when they face the Browns in Cleveland on Sunday? It's possible. But they know their execution also has to be better than it was in the previous meeting.
"Whether it be changing stuff or whatever, we're going to do whatever can be to our advantage," Dalton said.
If what he did on Dec. 7 can be repeated on the Dec. 14, 22 and 28, then the Cincinnati Bengals may do just enough to hold onto their AFC North lead and advance into the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year.
Then again, maybe not. After all, the Bengals did lose last Sunday to the Pittsburgh Steelers despite Green's 11-catch, 224-yard day. Still, one has to imagine the more times Green has performances like his most recent one, the better his team's chances at collecting wins will be.
But truthfully, this wasn't some one-game phenomenon for the fourth-year wideout. Across the past four weeks, he has gotten back to his old game-changing self, using his breakaway speed and apparently healthier right big toe to juke past, spin on and completely confound defenders during arguably the best stretch of his career.
In the past four games, Green has 33 catches on 47 targets for 529 yards and three touchdowns. Only Atlanta's Julio Jones, with 575 yards, has more receiving yards the last four weeks.
Green also has catches of 81, 56 and 38 yards during that stretch, with those receptions coming on play-action Go or Post routes. In the last month, he also has set a single-game career high in catches (13) and a single-game career high in yards (Sunday's 224).
"He's definitely got a little edge to him right now," said Clint Boling, a Bengals offensive lineman and Green's former college teammate at Georgia.
For Green, there's no better week to enter with an edge. At FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland on Sunday, he will be facing a cornerback who has mostly owned him going back to their days as competitors in the SEC. When Green was at Georgia, Browns corner Joe Haden was at Florida and was one of the few defensive backs to have any shred of success against Green.
Since the pair have been in the NFL, Haden has been Green's biggest headache.
In the past two Bengals-Browns games, Green has been held to just 30 yards on five catches and 15 targets while matched up with Haden, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In their six meetings, Haden also has held Green to three or fewer catches four times. Green's receptions percentage (the average the number of catches per target) is significantly lower when facing Haden, too. Versus Haden, his receptions percentage is 46.9 percent. Overall, it's 58.2 percent.
Last week, though, Green had success against another corner who has troubled him over the years. Pittsburgh's Ike Taylor had few answers as Green caught eight passes on nine targets against him. One of those was the 81-yard touchdown reception that came when he blew past Taylor and put a one-move juke on a safety to glide in for the score.
"The confidence is back," quarterback Andy Dalton said. "When the plays have been there, he's made them. He's made big catches, big runs after catches, big plays. That's the type of player he is, so you've got to keep giving him these opportunities to make these big plays."
Even still, Green's offensive coordinator wants to see more.
"He's done some really good things, but I think there's more in there. I really do," Hue Jackson said. "He's just scratching the surface of what he can be. My challenge to him is you've got to do that, but do it better. That's just the way it's got to be."
"Hey coach, based on the height difference of Hoyer and Manziel, how has your defensive approach changed for Sunday's game?" Rinaldi first asked.
Lewis answered carefully.
"In looking at the 130-something plays Johnny had this preseason and the plays he had against the Bills this year, and going back and looking at our time spent evaluating him in the draft and so forth, and there are things he did well in the offense at [Texas] A&M and so forth," Lewis said. "So we just go through and adjust the plan accordingly to the things we feel could be part of their offensive game plan this week against us."
The 6-foot-2 Hoyer was benched Tuesday for the 6-foot Manziel, who will be making the first start of his career Sunday when the Browns host the Bengals. Against Cincinnati last month, Hoyer threw for 198 yards in a 24-3 Thursday night win at Paul Brown Stadium.
Rinaldi's second question included the phrase "Hoyer likes to stand tall," which elicited the following response from Lewis:
"I think it's very similar to your first question," Lewis said. "Brian Hoyer, when we played them the first time they moved him a little bit. That's been part of their offense and part of the offense that [offensive coordinator] Kyle [Shanahan] put together. I think we'll have to adjust a little bit, but not much."
Moments after his news conference, Lewis told reporters in Cleveland on a conference call that he did not apologize directly to Rinaldi for the comment he made earlier in the week.
This all stems from Monday night, when during a Bengals-centric radio broadcast on Cincinnati's WLW-AM, Lewis was asked about preparing for the possibility of facing the mobile Manziel. He said, "you gotta go defend the offense. You don't defend the player -- particularly a midget."
Lewis has since apologized three times for the quip he called "dumb" and "stupid."
Little People of America Inc., an advocacy group for men and women diagnosed with dwarfism, publicly denounced use of the word midget in 2009.
Manziel separately told media in Cincinnati and Cleveland he wasn't bothered by Lewis' comment, and that he didn't think the coach meant it in a negative way. Manziel also acknowledged being an undersized quarterback, and understood the broader point Lewis was trying to make.
"It's absolutely funny," Manziel said. "I'm not going to sprout five inches over the course of the week. It is what it is. My height is my height."
Rinaldi and his cameraman attended practice Wednesday afternoon and took B-roll shots of the practice fields that often included Rinaldi standing in the foreground with Lewis in the distance behind him. Rinaldi declined to speak to other reporters present in Cincinnati but said he wasn't offended by Lewis' comment.
ESPN Browns reporter Jeremy Fowler contributed to this report.
If that were to happen, it would be the first time in four years that the team in stripes would miss the playoffs.
Football Outsiders' Aaron Schatz was the latest to make the claim Cincinnati comes up short, stating his case for ESPN Insider on Tuesday. The Bengals' projected playoff odds are lower than those of the Steelers and Ravens, taking a big hit following the latest loss Sunday.
Central to Schatz's argument and many others involving the Bengals as playoff outsiders is their schedule. One of the three toughest remaining slates in the league, the Bengals have two on the road these next three weeks at Cleveland and Pittsburgh and one home game on a Monday night against Denver. As you probably well know, the Bengals are 2-9 in prime-time and playoff games since 2011, the year Andy Dalton became their starting quarterback.
As it relates to those remaining division games, the Bengals have already lost this season -- at home, no less -- to Cleveland and Pittsburgh. As a result, losses in both of those cities seem like distinct possibilities.
Like safety George Iloka put it after last Sunday's 21-point loss to the Steelers, the next three weeks have to be viewed as their own separate playoff games.
"We have to do everything we can to come out of their home field with a win," he said, speaking specifically about this Sunday's game at Cleveland. "For me, I'm treating it like a playoff game. A one-game series. Each game is important."
It certainly is. If you play around on ESPN's Playoff Machine (as I did for a while early Wednesday), you'll see the Bengals probably need to win two of these next three in order to win the AFC North. True, they have the division lead right now, but they are only up a half game on the Steelers and Ravens. With Baltimore facing Jacksonville and Houston in the next two weeks, it's wholly possible that Baltimore will enter the regular-season finale against the Browns needing just one win to sneak past everyone and claim the division crown.
Cincinnati not only has to win. It must win.
Two wins might do the trick. Per the playoff machine, it doesn't much matter the combination of the two wins, just that they have to happen. The Bengals could win the next two and drop the finale, and they're in. They could lose Sunday and win the last two, and they're in. They could lose to the Broncos but beat the Browns and Steelers and they still are in with a 10-5-1 record.
Either way, neither of those scenarios will include cakewalk victories. That's why some think it's possible the Bengals might not make it this year.
Hours before the Cincinnati Bengals coach used poor taste in attempting to joke on the radio about the difficulty in slowing the smaller-in-stature Johnny Manziel, safety George Iloka smartly navigated reporters' questions Monday about the Bengals' motivations for this Sunday following last month's 21-point loss at home on national television to the Cleveland Browns.
"I don't look at as payback. I look at it as they're an opponent, and we need to win," Iloka said. "We're only a half-game up. I don't look at it as it being payback. I just look at it as they're a good team."
Smart answer. Correct answer, at least, publicly. Privately ought to be a different matter. If they want to win, the Bengals better go into this game with a chip on their shoulder for the embarrassment they suffered at home to a team that's currently mired in a quarterback controversy, and one that also holds the fourth and final spot in the ultra-competitive AFC North standings.
On the heels of last Sunday's 42-21 loss at home to the Steelers, in which the suddenly punchless bunch gave up 25 unanswered fourth-quarter points, the Bengals better play with the same "smart bully" swagger they wanted to be known for having in the early part of the season.
Even if quarterback Andy Dalton says in front of the cameras (like he did Monday) that he, too, doesn't view this game any differently because it's the Browns, deep down, he better. If any player ought to want to bounce back after the team's atrocious showing against Cleveland last month it ought to be him. Dalton set a career-low in completions (10) and finished with a 2.0 passer rating that was the worst for a quarterback in a single game in 31 years.
Privately, he also better be focused on winning for January's sake. If he does, he keeps giving himself chances to shut down the narrative about his postseason play. Dalton still hasn't won a playoff game after three postseason trips his first three seasons. He's hoping Year 4 goes differently.
In addition to being asked about retribution, Iloka was questioned about preparing for Browns quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel. Again, Lewis might want to take notes.
"We've probably got to prepare for both," Iloka said. "Obviously with Johnny Manziel they have a few different things in their offense they can do because he's probably faster than Hoyer. But they've still got to run the same routes. They still have the same receivers and tight ends and running backs and offensive line. They'll change up a little bit, but we'll prepare for both of them."
End of sentence, end of quote. That's all Lewis had to say.
Is there anything Johnny Football can't do?
On Monday night, Lewis, the Cincinnati Bengals' 12th-year head coach, called into the city's flagship sports radio station during a weekly show it hosts at a bar not far from Paul Brown Stadium. Radio host Lance McAlister and Bengals radio color analyst Dave Lapham, a former Bengal, were on WLW-AM asking Lewis about the possibility of the Bengals having to defend Manziel this Sunday when they visit the division-rival Browns.
But then he made a quip he later would regret.
"You gotta go defend the offense. You don't defend the player," he said, pausing before adding, "particularly a midget."
Once social media learned of Lewis' completely unnecessary addendum, a flame ignited.
Most were incensed by Lewis' word choice. Browns fans rallied behind it, hopeful their players use it as motivation when going for a second straight win over the Bengals following last month's 24-3 blowout victory on a Thursday night in Cincinnati. A loss this weekend, and the AFC North-leading Bengals could slip behind either or both the Ravens and Steelers. With a tough remaining schedule, their playoff hopes could start to fade.
In 2009, Little People of America, Inc. -- an advocacy group for men and women diagnosed with dwarfism, a medical condition that doesn't allow people to grow past 4-foot-10 -- made a public statement denouncing the use of the word "midget." To those with dwarfism, it is considered offensive. More practically, as it relates to Manziel, it simply doesn't make any sense.
Manziel is 6 feet tall.
On their active 53-man roster, the Bengals have 11 players, including 5-foot-9 running back Giovani Bernard, listed at shorter than 6-foot. Would Lewis use the same term to describe them, too?
About an hour after his comments went viral, Lewis issued an apology.
"I apologize to Johnny, the Browns and all the fans in Cleveland," he said. "It was just a poor remark. I really didn't mean anything by it."
Certainly, he was trying to add levity while discussing the intricacies of playing the smaller-in-stature, mobile Manziel. For the second straight week, the Browns have a quarterback controversy after starter Brian Hoyer had another disappointing showing in their 25-24 loss to Indianapolis on Sunday.
Browns coaches could decide Tuesday to give Manziel his first career start Sunday as a result.
No matter what his excuse, Lewis had no need for the added barb, particularly considering his litany of poorly chosen remarks this season.
Two weeks ago, Lewis had an abrasive and borderline arrogant tone during a news conference when asked about allegations from a former player's ex-wife who told The New York Times that when her then-husband played for the Bengals, Lewis told her to come to the team before going to the police in instances when he would assault her.
Instead of sticking to a pre-crafted statement as he originally said he would, Lewis repeatedly called the woman a liar.
Lying or not, an NFL coach in 2014 can't conduct himself like that during a news conference when domestic violence is a topic.
A month prior, he was rightfully and soundly criticized for making the claim concussions "linger longer" in players today because of enhanced media attention surrounding them and their effects.
Lewis has a public-speaking problem, and given the way his team collapsed in Sunday's 42-21 loss to the Steelers, it isn't his only one.
Among the things more important than an opposing player's height: preparing to defend an NFL quarterback.
Those raw numbers are not very good. Neither was Newhouse's overall play.
He wasn't alone.
Do those numbers suggest that quarterback Andy Dalton was under duress all night and didn't have time to throw? Are numbers like them the reason behind the quarterback's poor play that was best summed with his career-low 2.0 passer rating?
In other words, did his issues in the 24-3 loss stem from protection problems?
It doesn't appear to be the case. Protection breakdowns certainly might have factored, but as we have seen this season, Dalton can negotiate poor blocking and still do enough to lead his team to a win.
Dalton's problems likely went much further than the Bengals' offensive line.
Per PFF's analysis of the Bengals' nine games this season, pass protection wasn't good against the Browns, but it wasn't the worst, either. The website awarded the overall group a minus-3.1 grade in pass blocking. Cincinnati's worst pass-blocking performance, according to PFF, actually came in the Week 8 win against Baltimore. That week, the unit amassed a minus-9.3 pass-blocking grade, with five players getting negative marks.
Still, Dalton fought through the poor protection against Baltimore and successfully led a fourth-quarter comeback drive that was punctuated with his 1-yard dive on fourth-and-goal.
The Stats & Information team has the Bengals at a season-low 43.7 pass protection percentage in the Baltimore game. The percentage is calculated by determining how often an offensive line controls the line of scrimmage on all passing plays, including scrambles.
Using the Stats & Information formula, in what game did the Bengals have their best pass protection?
Last week's loss to the Browns. Cincinnati's offense controlled the line of scrimmage 56.5 percent of the game.
So much for the theory that the Bengals' offensive line was the source of Dalton's issues.
Protection still is a major issue for the Bengals, though. The offense's pass-blocking grades have, on average, declined sharply in the past six games compared to the first three. During the Bengals' 3-0 start, the unit had a combined plus-3.5 pass-block grade, per PFF. In the games since, it is averaging a plus-0.08 grade. That grade is even below the combined plus-0.4 grade they have in the three losses this season.
What do these numbers all mean?
That the Bengals' offense had a lot of problems last week, and the offensive line's inadequacies are only a small portion of them. The numbers also mean it's time for Dalton to play around his offense's problems -- firm line or not -- like he has before.