Sunday, December 23, 2007

Clinch time?

This is the game I circled when it became apparent that the Browns were going to make a serious playoff push.

Week 16, Bengals, at Cincinnati.

It turns out, this game goes even deeper than I imagined it would.

If the Browns win, they clinch their first playoff berth in five years, and keep alive their flickering hopes for their first division title in 18 years.

If they lose, they open a Pandora's box of nasty possibilities.

A Browns loss coupled with a Tennessee Titans win over the Jets would push the Titans back into the driver's seat for the final playoff spot. If the Titans beat the Colts the following week -- a distinct possibility since the second-seeded Colts would likely rest their starters for much of the game -- the Titans would win the final playoff spot regardless of the outcome of the Browns-49ers game.

In that scenario, the Browns and Titans would finish with identical conference records of 7-5, and the Browns would lose on the third tiebreak -- record versus common opponents. The Titans would hold a 4-1 record in games against the Texans, Raiders, Bengals and Jets. The Browns would hold a 3-2 record against the same teams.

The Browns can avoid it all by simply taking care of business against the Bengals this afternoon. But this is a dangerous game because it's a division game against a intrastate rival that is convinced that their Week 2 loss to the Browns propelled the teams in opposite directions.

The Bengals seem to have reverted back to the "Bungles" teams that soiled the NFL's good name for the all of the 1990s and the first half of this decade. But this is a team that is better than their 5-9 record would indicate.

Yes, this is a team that lost to the woeful 49ers eight days ago. But the Bengals also pounded the Titans 35-6 in late November. Their defense might be among the league's worst, but then again, so is the Browns'.

If anything, this game could be like shadow-fighting for the Browns. Two teams with questionable defenses relying on their high-powered offenses to score their way to a win.

Two things probably give the Browns the upper hand: They have superior special teams, particularly when it comes to punting and kick returning, so they can play the field position game better than that Bengals likely can. The Bengals will also be without the services of perennial Browns killer Rudi Johnson according to news reports, which will probably force the Bengals to the air more than they'd like.

Leigh Bodden, Eric Wright and the rest of the Browns' cornerbacks had better get ready. Cleveland's chances in this game might rest on their collective ability to contain high-octane receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Without the services of Rudi Johnson, QB Carson Palmer will probably go to the air early and often.

And Derek Anderson, if your team falls behind early, please resist the temptation to force passes into triple coverage 40 yards downfield. If you let this Cincinnati defense pick you off three or four times, it will be a repeat of the Cardinals game all over again.

Remember, with Kellen Winslow lurking close to the line of scrimmage, it's always the right time for dump-off time.

On paper, the playoff-contending Browns should have no problem polishing off a Bengals team that lacks Rudi Johnson. But this is the AFC North, where all four teams have a history of really not liking each other. The Bengals would relish the opportunity to play spoiler for the Browns' playoff hopes, as the Browns did to the Bengals on the last week of the 2003 season. They will be motivated, make no mistake about it.

If the Browns are as good as advertised, it shouldn't make a difference, and they should be able to head back to the other end of the state with a playoff berth in tow. But if they're not, the Titans will have the opening they've been looking for, and Week 17 could be a drag race to the finish line, with the Browns sitting in the passenger seat.

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