The Battle of Ohio

Published 11:34 pm Saturday, September 27, 2008

CINCINNATI — Derek Anderson threw away the Cleveland Browns’ playoff chances the last time he came to town. The stakes are even higher for the return trip.

Anderson’s job — and perhaps the Browns’ chances for a turnaround — are on the line Sunday when the ‘‘Battle of Ohio’’ resumes in a new form, more of a ‘‘Weekend of the Winless.’’ The Browns and Bengals are both 0-3 and tottering on the verge of early elimination in the AFC North, where it may not take a lot of wins to get a title.

An 0-4 start probably won’t get it done, though.

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‘‘I think whoever wins this game is not totally out of it,’’ Browns coach Romeo Crennel said. ‘‘Everybody is playing tough teams, so it’s not over, probably, by a long shot. So if you can get a division win, you’re not out of it.’’

Lose, and it’s a whole different matter. Think it’s ugly along the shores of Lake Erie and the Ohio River? Just wait for one more loss.

History would begin to beckon.

The Browns haven’t started 0-4 since 1999, their first year back in the league as an expansion team. Tim Couch led the overmatched Browns to a 2-14 finish that season, the start of a tough stretch. Cleveland has made only one playoff appearance since its return, a 9-7 record in 2002 was good enough for a wild-card berth and a first-round loss to Pittsburgh.

Think the Dawg Pound is riled up now? Center Hank Fraley has already gotten a taste of the fans’ feelings on his weekly radio show.

‘‘I had one (caller) after the second game. He said, ’Tell Romeo to kick another field goal,’’’ Fraley said. ‘‘I just laughed at him. I was like, ’All right, I will.’ As fans, you should be frustrated. We’re frustrated with you guys. We’re 0-3 and we want to do better for this city.’’

Crennel won’t let the bad go on too long Sunday.

The Browns were on the verge of making the playoffs last season when they came to Cincinnati for the second-to-last game. Anderson had one of the worst games of his career, matching his career high with four interceptions in a 19-14 loss that ultimately kept Cleveland out of the playoffs.

In the first three games this season, Anderson has played more like he did that game in Cincinnati. He has completed only 46 percent of his throws with two touchdowns, five interceptions and a dismal passer rating of 43.5.

Anderson thinks he’s not too far off his game.

‘‘Just a little better timing, a little better location. Little things,’’ Anderson said. ‘‘It’s not miraculous. We don’t have to change a ton.’’

His coach is ready to drop a big change on him. If Anderson struggles against the Bengals, Brady Quinn will get into his second NFL game. Quinn, a first-round pick last season, played one series in Cleveland’s final game last year.

‘‘Quinn is going to be ready,’’ Crennel said. ‘‘I told the team this morning. I also told them I am not answering questions about what, when, why, how, how many — what-if kind of questions as it relates to the quarterback.’’

By saying Quinn was ready, the coach answered the main question.

The only question about the Bengals’ quarterback is if he’ll make it through the game without a bloody nose for a change.

Carson Palmer broke his nose in the preseason, and had it bloodied again in a 26-23 overtime loss to the Giants that seemed to get the offense back in form.

Palmer was sacked six times by the Giants. He’s been sacked nine times overall in three games, and hit frequently when he’s gotten rid of the ball. Besides the bloody noses, Palmer has been hobbled by a sprained ankle, the result of another hit.

‘‘I think I’m built for that,’’ he said. ‘‘Being 245 pounds, it gives me a little extra cushion for when those big guys are laying on you. But in no way do I want to get sacked six times. I really don’t think it will happen again.’’

Despite the pain, Palmer led the offense in a breakout game that restored a little confidence. The offense had only one touchdown in the first two games.

‘‘I think our offense is going to start rolling,’’ receiver Chad Ocho Cinco said. ‘‘It picked up this week and as the weeks keep going, it’s going to continue to pick up. It was right there Sunday. I mean, we haven’t really been explosive as we normally are, but it’s right there. Sunday was a start. I doubt if we go backward.’’

Another loss would send them back into their bad history. Cincinnati hasn’t opened a season 0-4 since 2002, when it went a franchise-worst 2-12 and fired coach Dick LeBeau. It would be their fourth 0-4 start since 1999, leaving fans with the feeling that the bad old days are certainly back.

Unlike in Cleveland, where the coach and quarterback are taking the brunt of things, the front office is the main target in Cincinnati.

Fans realize coach Marvin Lewis has job security with two years left on his contract. At some point, Lewis may decide he wants out, but an 0-4 start won’t jeopardize his job.

‘‘I don’t think it has any bearing on my future,’’ Lewis said. ‘‘It’s serious to me, but it’s got nothing to do with my future. And if it does, I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.

‘‘My future doesn’t cause me any worry, OK?’’