‘Perfect’ Bengals await Browns

Published 11:00 pm Saturday, November 28, 2009

CINCINNATI — No Bengals team has been so perfect.

With a victory over intrastate rival Cleveland on Sunday, Cincinnati (7-3) would run the table in the AFC North. No Bengals team has won all six division games in a season; the closest they’ve come is 5-1.

It would do more than make franchise history. It would show who owns the place in ’09.

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Not the Steelers, who went 6-0 in the division last season and went on to another Super Bowl title. Not the Ravens, who lost to those Steelers in the AFC championship game in January. And certainly not the Browns (1-9), who are in their own state at the moment when it comes to football — the state of disarray.

Who could argue with 6-0?

“That would mean a lot,” receiver Chad Ochocinco said. “That’s like me dating Halle Berry, going 6-0 in the division. It equals out to the same thing.”

Instead of Ochocinco getting to Berry, it’ll be a matter of the Bengals getting to Brady.

Quarterback Brady Quinn will make his first start in the intrastate rivalry, a moment he has dreamed about since he was growing up in central Ohio. Back in those days, the teams played with titles on the line, Cincinnati’s Boomer Esiason and Cleveland’s Bernie Kosar matching clutch touchdown passes from the mid-1980s to the early ’90s.

Quinn loved it.

“I remember the Bernie and Boomer posters, two top quarterbacks in the NFL playing against each other a couple times a year,” said Quinn, who rooted for the Browns. “I remember putting that poster up in my room and watching the games on Sundays.”

Asked if he had a favorite memory, Quinn demurred.

“Not one in particular, to be honest with you,” he said. “Don’t forget, I just turned 25.”

For Browns fans, the rivalry has been forgettable lately. The Bengals have won eight of the past 10 games, matching the most dominant stretch in the series’ history. Cleveland won eight of 10 from 1991-95, before the original Browns moved to Baltimore.

The Browns have been consumed with merely trying to get into the end zone. They finally got moving on offense when the Bengals visited on Oct. 4, but Ochocinco’s touchdown with 1:55 left in regulation tied it and Cincinnati pulled it out in overtime 23-20.

Cleveland went back to fumbling around and switched from Derek Anderson to Quinn, who had a career day last Sunday. He threw for 304 yards and four touchdowns in another last-minute loss, this time 38-37 in Detroit.

How Quinn performs the rest of the way might shape his future with the Browns, who have only two winning records in their 11 seasons as an expansion team. Of course, given the turmoil in the front office, it’s tough to say.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Right now, to guess and throw out hypotheticals like that — I have no idea.”

His first intrastate NFL game has some other personal significance. For the first time, he’ll be opposing his best friend. Bengals safety Chinedum Ndukwe befriended him during a French class in junior high. They teamed up as quarterback and receiver in high school, then both went to Notre Dame.

They talk once a week and planned to go out to dinner the night before the game. Then, Ndukwe will spend 60 minutes trying to pick him off or knock him down.

“We’ve got to make sure that we do what we’ve been doing to quarterbacks all season, which is keep them in the pocket and get the pressure on him,” Ndukwe said.

Unlike Quinn, the first-place Bengals know exactly what their future holds.

Cincinnati is a game ahead of Pittsburgh and two ahead of Baltimore. The Bengals hold the head-to-head tiebreakers with both, so they’ve got the equivalent of a two-game lead with only six to play. The only way they don’t make the playoffs is if they self-destruct.

They did exactly that last Sunday in Oakland, fumbling three times and collapsing in the closing minutes of a 20-17 defeat that has stuck with them.

“This team hasn’t been this frustrated and this mad since I’ve been here, after what happened last week,” said quarterback Carson Palmer, who is 7-2 against Cleveland. “We have a lot of energy right now. We’re excited about a chance to play. And nothing gets that nasty feeling out of the pit of your stomach like getting a chance to play at home against a division team and going 6-0 in the division and all these things that are added onto this game.”

The game at Oakland was the first of three in a row against struggling teams, which represented a chance for Cincinnati to put it away. After Cleveland, the Bengals host the Lions.

Instead of opening up more ground last week, the Bengals ended up running in place.

“We still haven’t reached that offense of consistency that we need to make that run at the playoffs,” Ochocinco said. “We’re not there yet. We’re just getting by. Good teams beat the teams they’re supposed to. When they say you’re supposed to win a certain game, the good teams win them.

“And we need to get on that page.”