Cincinnati Bengals: jordan cameron

CLEVELAND -- When the play started, the Browns were 1 yard shy of the goal line. Cleveland quarterback Brian Hoyer was behind center, handed a direct snap.

By the time the ball left his hand on a fall-away pass, he felt like he had been magically transported halfway downfield, carried closer to the far end zone by disbelief, an exuberant, boyish joy and an overwhelming sense of relief.

At that instant, he and the other 71,000 people inside FirstEnergy Stadium could tell: Hoyer, the hometown kid, was about to be 2-0 as the starting quarterback for the team he grew up cheering.

"I was a little embarrassed," Hoyer later said, joking about his fall-away. "By the time he caught it, I was at the 40-yard line because he was so wide open."

The player who hauled in Hoyer's late fourth-quarter touchdown pass was running back Chris Ogbonnaya, and when he easily crossed the goal line for the 1-yard score with 4:54 remaining, a brash message was sent to the rest of the AFC North and reluctantly received. The Browns, it said, are the division doormat no more. Even without Trent Richardson, they are very much in this race and plan to make life difficult for those teams, like the Bengals, who so many had hitched their hopes to in the preseason.

As the calendar quickly turns to Week 5 -- Cleveland has a short turnaround after Sunday's 17-6 win over Cincinnati with a Thursday night game against Buffalo -- Browns fans are now similarly hitching their hopes onto Hoyer.

[+] EnlargeCleveland's Brian Hoyer
Ken Blaze/USA TODAY SportsBrian Hoyer passed for 269 yards in his home debut as the starting quarterback for the team he grew up rooting for.
The North Olmstead, Ohio, native was impressive in his home debut, compiling a 103.9 passer rating and throwing for 269 yards and two touchdowns. After the first quarter alone, a period that saw him complete all of his first eight passes, Hoyer posted a 147.9 passer rating.

"He did a great job," Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said. "We were a little bit too hyped up early on, I'd say. Guys settled in. He settled in and made some good decisions with throws and made good plays. Certainly he's been the spark that I had hoped for."

Chudzinski decided to go with Hoyer two games ago after starter Brandon Weeden had difficulty leading the offense through the first two games. Weeden also got injured in that stretch, making the decision to stick with Hoyer even easier. Part of the decision was to simply shake things up, another part was to see how change might affect the team.

The decision, so far, has paid great dividends.

If it will for a third straight week is anyone's guess at this point. Chudzinski told reporters after the game he still wanted to evaluate game film Monday and determine whether he'll be sticking with Hoyer, going with Weeden or progressing in a whole different direction at quarterback.

One week after helping beat Minnesota late on the road, Hoyer routinely put the Browns in position to score against their in-state rival Sunday afternoon. Even though the Bengals had multiple chances to make the game closer, they probably should have lost by much more. A pair of missed Billy Cundiff field goals took points away from the Browns, and a couple of failed third-down conversions that led to them took away Cleveland scoring chances. Cleveland's 17 total points very easily could been 23 or 24 or 28.

"They've [the offensive players] definitely improved as the season has gone on," Chudzinski said. "The thing that I like about these guys is any time you challenge them or talk about the things we need to improve on, they respond. It's great when you have a group of guys that feel that way and respond that way."

Hoyer's homecoming was aided in large part by tight end Jordan Cameron's 10-catch, one-touchdown effort. It was the second time this season Cameron had nine or more receptions, and it followed up his six-catch performance in Hoyer's debut last week.

"He's taking advantage of the opportunities in front of him," Cameron said of Hoyer. "It's good to see that, especially because he is from this area. He talked about it being a dream to play in front of these fans and get a win against another Ohio team. It's a big day for him and I'm really happy for him."

W2W4: Bengals at Browns

September, 28, 2013
Plain and simple, teams in the AFC North just don't like one another. They can't stand each other. If there is a division in the NFL in which the teams involved have the truest sense of hate for one another, it's this one.

Just think about it. Whenever the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns get together, enormous, vocal crowds usually turn out. Both franchises can enter a particular meeting having a poor season, stumbling to their respective losing records and still, FirstEnergy Stadium or Paul Brown Stadium will be rocking. That's what makes a true football rivalry.

This year, though, neither team appears to be bad. Far from it. The Bengals are a hot pick to end up in the AFC Championship Game, and the Browns, post-Trent Richardson trade, are suddenly the darling upstart of the conference. If there has been an underdog in the AFC to root for the last two weeks, Cleveland has been it.

When the two teams meet for the first time this season at 1 p.m. ET Sunday, here are four things you'll want to watch for:

1. The homecoming. As a teenager in Cleveland, Brian Hoyer attended Browns games, dreaming he'd one day get an opportunity to start a game there as a professional quarterback. That day is on the horizon. It's Sunday. For the first time in his five-year career, the longtime backup will be taking starting snaps for the team he grew up cheering, in the city that raised him. After his impressive performance in last week's win over Minnesota, Hoyer was given the starting nod again this week, playing in place of Brandon Weeden, who has been dealing with a thumb injury. Watch for Hoyer's excitement level. Understandably, it will be high, and a packed home crowd ought to make it even higher. If he's too pumped up, though, it could be a problem for the Browns. If the Bengals can put pressure on him early and fluster him, the homecoming could be a long one for Hoyer.

[+] EnlargeMichael Johnson
AP Photo/Joe RobbinsBengals defensive end Michael Johnson will have his hands full Sunday against the Browns' Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas.
2. The battle in the trenches. Both teams feature offensive and defensive lines with a mix of young, promising talent and cagey, wily veterans. Cleveland's offensive line is anchored by six-time Pro Bowler Joe Thomas. The left tackle will be matched up with Bengals fifth-year defensive end Michael Johnson, who had his best game of the season last week against Green Bay. Among Johnson's more memorable plays from the win was his forced fumble that led to Terence Newman's recovery and 58-yard touchdown return, and his pass deflection on a fourth-and-5 one drive later that iced the win. Cincinnati's offensive line is anchored by Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth. He likely will be paired against defensive end Desmond Bryant. When Bryant isn't giving him trouble, though, rookie outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo could. Mingo and Whitworth hail from the same Louisiana town and college football power (LSU) and have a long friendship that will be put to the test on the field for the first time.

3. Cameron coverage belongs to ... Be on the lookout for where Browns tight end Jordan Cameron lines up on the line of scrimmage, and keep an eye out for which Bengals linebacker gets awarded the responsibility of covering him. Through three games, Cameron already has tied a career high in receptions (20) and set career marks with 269 receiving yards and four touchdowns. At the start of his third season, Cameron is blossoming into another one of the NFL's bright, young, pass-catching talents at tight end. Cincinnati certainly has had its eye on him all week, and the team feels confident it has a game plan that will stop him. Against the Vikings last week, Cameron had six receptions for 66 yards and three touchdowns.

This will be the first such test for the Bengals since the season opener, when Chicago's Martellus Bennett had three catches, including a touchdown in the Bears' 24-21 win. In the Bengals' other two games, injuries kept them from seeing just how effective the tight end could be in those offenses. The Packers' Jermichael Finley went down with a concussion in the first quarter of Cincinnati's 34-30 win last week.

4. Cornerback watch. There may be more attention paid to the Bengals' pregame by their fans than anything else Sunday as they await the fate of their cornerbacks. Three of them, Leon Hall, Dre Kirkpatrick and Newman, were dealing with injuries this week. Safety Reggie Nelson also had his own injury concerns. Only Newman appears set to go, though, after Kirkpatrick, Hall and Nelson were listed as doubtful on the Bengals' injury report Friday. Coach Marvin Lewis is holding out hope that more optimistic news may come Sunday morning, but there is a strong possibility it might not. If it doesn't, look for Brandon Ghee, a young cornerback who is just returning from a concussion that had kept him out since the preseason, to slip into Hall's role. Newly re-signed safety Chris Crocker also could be in the mix to replace Nelson if need be. The cornerback watch will be a captivating one because it could have an impact on the Bengals' efforts at slowing Browns receiver Josh Gordon, who hauled in 10 passes from Hoyer last week.