AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals

CINCINNATI -- In their first practice of the week, the Cincinnati Bengals got tight end Jermaine Gresham back from a toe injury that forced him to miss last Sunday's game at Cleveland.

Gresham was in and out of practice last week after picking up the injury in one of the week's workouts. He tested out the toe before Sunday's game and, for the most part, looked pretty good. But he apparently didn't feel good enough.

He told coaches and trainers he was in too much pain and was thus declared inactive.

On Thursday, he not only was active, but he participated fully alongside defensive end Margus Hunt and cornerback Terence Newman. Hunt returned after missing four weeks with an ankle injury. He was injured in the Week 11 game at New Orleans and was quickly placed into a walking boot and crutches. Newman practiced after also being inactive last Sunday due to his own ankle injury.

Of concern Thursday was the absence of A.J. Green. The Pro Bowl receiver was sent home after the Bengals' morning walk-through because of an illness. It is believed he'll be OK to practice Friday, and his status for Monday night's game against the Denver Broncos isn't in doubt.

While there doesn't appear to be any issue with Green this week, the same can't be said just yet about linebacker Emmanuel Lamur and receiver James Wright. Neither practiced, but they did participate in rehab and conditioning exercises on the side of the practice fields. This was only the second time Wright has gone through rehab drills in the nearly three weeks he has missed with a knee injury. It's a promising sign that he could be activated this week if the Bengals are comfortable with the injury's progress.

Lamur hurt his hamstring in the second half of the 30-0 win over the Browns on Sunday.

Here is the complete Thursday injury report:

WR A.J. Green (illness)
LB Emmanuel Lamur (hamstring)
WR James Wright (knee)
OL Mike Pollak (knee)

CB Dre Kirkpatrick (Achilles)
DE Carlos Dunlap (calf)

DE Margus Hunt (ankle)
CB Terence Newman (ankle)
TE Jermaine Gresham (toe)
CINCINNATI -- It would be unwise for the Cincinnati Bengals to out-think themselves this week and give up on the run.

It must be said that there is no reason to believe they will do such a thing Monday night when they host the Denver Broncos on ESPN, but you never can be so sure.

If coaches ever do entertain the thought this week of going away from what worked so well in Cincinnati's 30-0 victory over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, here's some sage advice.


This is coming from the Bengals themselves, who believe the best way to keep winning challenging games this month is by keeping the ball on the ground.

"We've been a team that, honestly, the running game has put us in the situation we've been in this year, and we need to continue to believe in it and let it be a part of who we are," veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said.

There's evidence of the run game's success as well.

"As we've grown throughout the year, the running game has continued to evolve," Whitworth said. "We are getting better and better at it and more efficient at it."

Indeed, they are. The link above shows just how much more efficient the Bengals have been since Week 9, when rookie Jeremy Hill first earned starting duties at running back when Giovani Bernard missed three straight games because of injuries. Even in the recent weeks, when Bernard has been healthy, the Bengals have continued to feed the ball to Hill. This past Sunday, receiving his first start with Bernard also in the rotation, Hill gained 148 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries in the Bengals' victory over the Browns.

It was the third time in six games he had gained more than 140 yards.

As the Bengals welcome the league's No. 2 rushing defense to Paul Brown Stadium on Monday, another veteran offensive tackle, Eric Winston thinks the rushing emphasis ought to carry over into this week.

"More so than anything, it has to be a mindset. It has to be a thought and the way you carry yourself," Winston said. "Knowing what we did Sunday has to be who we are and not just a week-to-week thing. It has to be the badge you wear every week. That's when we're at our best. Even when I wasn't here, you noticed that this offense is at its best when it's running the ball effectively.

"If that's who we're going to be, then that's who we need to be every week."

Part of the reason teams don't fare well on the ground against the Broncos is because Denver often is so far ahead that opposing offenses reject the run to pass their way back into games.

After three quarters, the Broncos' points margin is plus-117, third-highest in the league behind the Packers and Patriots. It's no surprise they are among the four teams that have allowed the fewest fourth-quarter rushes this season, averaging less than 5.4.

Overall, Denver has allowed 21 carries per game. The Bengals are averaging 30.4. In the Broncos' three losses, each opposing team rushed more than 25 times.

If the Bengals can run the ball early and get a lead, or at least keep it tight by halftime, they had better stay on the ground.
CINCINNATI -- Three days after being the only running back in the league to rush for more than 100 yards in Week 15, Cincinnati Bengals running back Jeremy Hill was named the AFC Offensive Player of the Week on Wednesday morning.

The rookie was recognized for his 148-yard, two-touchdown performance in Sunday's 30-0 Bengals road win over the Cleveland Browns.

Earlier last week, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson told Hill and fellow running back Giovani Bernard he wanted to change up the backfield roles. For now, Bernard was no longer the starter. As he set the game plan for the Browns, Jackson wanted Hill to be the feature back as the Bengals attempted to force the run.

Bernard had a strong game, too, rushing 15 times for 79 yards. Overall, the Bengals picked up 244 yards on the ground.

But it was Hill's performance that was clearly the highlight of the game. It came five weeks after he told reporters he didn't think the Browns were a very good team following Cleveland's 24-3 win in Cincinnati. It was his belief that the Bengals simply hurt themselves that night and that they truly were better than the Browns.

He said nothing along those lines after Sunday's game. Instead, he let his play do the talking.

In the first half alone, he rushed for 103 yards on 16 carries, and collected all 36 yards on the Bengals' second scoring drive of the game. According to Pro Football Focus, he forced five missed tackles, and 87 of his 148 yards came after contact.

This is the second weekly honor Hill has earned. The night of the first game against the Browns, the NFL announced that he had earned Rookie of the Week honors for his 152-yard outing in a Week 9 win over the Jaguars.

As far as player of the week honors, this is the first time this season a Bengal has earned such recognition. The previous time was last December, when quarterback Andy Dalton was named the AFC's Offensive Player of the Week after a Week 14 win over Indianapolis. Dalton also earned player of the month honors for October last season.

Hill has 877 yards rushing, and is on pace for 1,002. He would be the team's first 1,000-yard rusher since 2012, when BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed for 1,094.

QB snapshot: Andy Dalton

December, 16, 2014
Dec 16
A quick observation of quarterback Andy Dalton and how he played in the Cincinnati Bengals' 30-0 win over the Cleveland Browns in Week 15:

There's just something about the Browns, apparently. In his last four starts against them, Dalton has played some of the worst games of his last two seasons. In none of those outings has he had a Total QBR higher than the 20s. In case you didn't know, the highest possible QBR score is 100.0.

Sunday's 27.3 QBR was the product of Dalton's 14-for-24, 117-yard, no-touchdown, one-interception performance that got completely overshadowed by rookie running back Jeremy Hill's 148-yard showing. Had it not been for Hill's play, the Bengals might have been scuffling for offensive scores. Dalton just wasn't getting the job done as they tried to move the ball through the air.

Dalton struggled particularly with throwing downfield, often tossing the ball in directions opposite from where his receivers broke as they tried to get separation from Browns defensive backs. Whenever A.J. Green would open to his outside for a long throw, Dalton would throw inside. When another receiver might break inside, Dalton would throw well outside of him and out of the reach of the defensive back. Miscommunication was a major issue in the deep passing game.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Dalton was 2-for-11 when attempting passes that traveled 10 yards or more in the air. He's had only one worse completion percentage on passes of that distance this season: his 2-for-12 showing in the November meeting with the Browns.

For Dalton, there's just something about playing Cleveland, it seems.
CINCINNATI -- Among the several good talkers in the Cincinnati Bengals' locker room, Jeremy Hill has established himself as one of the top go-to players on the team for a quote on just about anything.

It's because the rookie running back knows how to paint a vivid, well-thought-out picture when responding to interviewers' questions. Even the most mundane of inquiries seldom seem to stump him.

So it was slightly jarring for reporters last Friday when Hill, after a week of working out or traipsing around the Bengals' facility in places other than the locker room when the team had player availability, said he wasn't talking. Approached Friday morning, minutes before availability for the week would be closed, he politely declined interview requests.

"I tried to stay off social media this week," the normally frequent Twitter poster said an hour after Sunday afternoon's 30-0 trouncing of the Browns. "I tried not to talk to media. I just didn't want to get too involved in this stuff this week. I just wanted to go out there, set the tempo, get our run game going and take the pressure off Andy [Dalton]."

Fair enough.

The extra focus must have paid off because Hill had a 25-carry, 148-yard, two-touchdown day that helped fuel the Bengals' rout. The first four plays of the game were all Hill runs, a clear early sign Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson wanted to give Cleveland a heavy dose of its bigger-bodied back.

You have to credit coaching for both the enhanced focus, and the effective game plan.

It's just like how you have to credit coaching for getting defensive players so angered about facing the Johnny Manziel hype machine that they were hellbent on embarrassing the rookie quarterback in his first career start. As much needling as the Bengals did internally to get the defense up for the task, they also happened to draw up a great scheme that hinged on scaling back the blitz, and getting defensive linemen into the backfield often.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Bengals only blitzed on two of Manziel's 28 dropbacks.

That was a coaching decision from defensive coordinator Paul Guenther -- one that paid off handsomely.

Another reason why you have to put this win on the coaches? Because during a hectic week that was marked by controversy, criticism and untimely familial deaths, the staff repeatedly told players to relax and trust in the plan crafted for them.

"I told our guys during the week that we don't have pressure," head coach Marvin Lewis said. "We just have to go play. Knowing your responsibilities and how to get out and execute it, those are the things we have to do."

What they have to do now is simple. With the regular season drawing to a close and a playoff berth within reach, Bengals players these next two weeks just have to recycle the exact same work they put in last week and the exact same execution they had Sunday.

"We were talking about that on the sideline," defensive tackle Domata Peko said. "They gave us a great game plan. So the game was easy. That's where the game was won -- Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. [Sunday] was just the reward for going out and executing."
CLEVELAND -- Mike Nugent just had to get a few kicks off his toe.

Last Wednesday, while his teammates went home after a long day of practice, meetings and treatment, the Cincinnati Bengals kicker was on the field inside Paul Brown Stadium, joined by his wife, his brother and his sister-in-law.

With the sun down, team president Mike Brown had requested the lights to the stadium be turned on at Nugent's behest.

For the first time since dealing with the unexpected death of his father, the kicker simply had to do what he does best: blasting footballs into the sky.

Daniel Nugent was 66.

"Most of it was just me thinking, 'I need to hit 20 to 30 balls, just to get some in,'" Mike Nugent, a Centerville, Ohio, native said Sunday afternoon following the Bengals' 30-0 road win over the Cleveland Browns. "At the end of the day, the kicker's the closer. We need to get points if we don't get the ball in the end zone. I didn't want to kick [last] Sunday vs. Pittsburgh and not again until [this Sunday].

"It's a lot for me to get out there and kick some balls, but I also wanted my coaches to know, 'Hey, I'm still playing. Everything's going to be fine.'"

Everything was.

In addition to the Bengals' physical play on defense and their trouncing on offense, Mike Nugent was 3-for-3 on field goal attempts. Since his 36-yard miss at the end of overtime 10 games ago, he hasn't missed. He's now 11-for-11 since his wide-right kick ended the Panthers game in a 37-all tie.

Of everything Mike Nugent heard following the miss, nothing had as much impact as the 14 words he heard from his father.

"Hey, you have been down before," Daniel Nugent told his son. "The next kick is the one that matters."

Daniel Nugent played college ball at Wisconsin and Dayton. His son played at Ohio State before embarking on a 10-year professional career that has taken him to four NFL cities, including the one closest to home. A Bengal since 2010, Mike Nugent has been playing less than an hour from where he grew up. He spent Monday and Tuesday with his family before his late-night kicking session Wednesday.

Mike Nugent didn't practice with the Bengals all week, returning home for a five-and-a-half-hour visitation ceremony for his father Thursday. The funeral was Friday.

"People are incredible and my coach has been, too," Nugent said. "The Cincinnati organization has been unbelievable this week in letting me be with my family."

Special-teams coordinator Darrin Simmons waited until the end of the game, after Nugent's final kickoff with about 20 seconds remaining, to show him a picture of Daniel Nugent that he had alongside his play-calling sheets.

There was more heartache for the Bengals early in the week. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's father also died.

"We haven't ever done much as far as giving out a game ball, but Mike Nugent got one," head coach Marvin Lewis said. "We all had to put our arms around each other and come out here. We knew how important it was and how much our loved ones that we lost would want this game to be for them. That meant the most to everybody."
CLEVELAND -- This one was for the nationally televised embarrassment at Paul Brown Stadium last month.

It was for all the reporters and talking heads who spent more time this week talking about Johnny Manziel and a host of comments involving him -- both controversial and not -- than the men charged to defend him.

It was for the Nugent family, and the Jackson one, too.

It was for the playoffs.

While the rest of the NFL spent the past seven days discussing the various ways the Cleveland Browns might be motivated to beat their bitter rivals to the south, very little was said about what might be driving the Cincinnati Bengals as they sought a key late-season AFC North victory.

Turns out, they had a lot more boiling underneath the surface than was initially apparent.

Playing loose, yet aggressive and with the exact physicality that long has been a hallmark of play in the AFC North, the Bengals exacted revenge, silenced critics and maintained a slim division lead. In their most complete win of the season, a 30-0 road blowout, it was evident how downright dominant they can be.

Credit a meeting in Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's office for making it possible.

A day after they had been informed Jackson's father died, running backs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill were called into the coach's office Wednesday. He told them he was changing up the running back rotation. Bernard was no longer the starter. The second-year rusher was being replaced by the bigger, slightly more physical Hill.

The rookie didn't disappoint.

"Once Hue let me know what my role was going to be and how much the team was going to depend on me this week, I really took it on myself to really embellish that and really take that in and really just take advantage of it," Hill said. "I knew we were going to have to run the football to be successful."

The Bengals ran 45 times for 244 yards in a performance that mimicked the Brown's 52-carry performance in a 24-3 win against the Bengals on a Thursday night in Cincinnati last month. Hill was the bell cow Sunday, gaining 148 yards on 25 carries. The game's first drive was marked by his six carries, including a 2-yard touchdown run.

"The defense fed off that," offensive guard Kevin Zeitler said.

Cincinnati forced a three-and-out on the Browns' ensuing possession. The one after that, Bengals defensive end Wallace Gilberry got quickly in the backfield and brought down Manziel for the first of many stops on the rookie quarterback behind the line of scrimmage. In his first career start, Manziel had trouble avoiding striped helmets.

"This ain't college. This is the NFL," defensive tackle Domata Peko said. "You don't have college kids chasing you. You've got some grown men that have kids and who are out here trying to feed their families. It's a lot faster than college."

Along with their solid offensive and defensive performance, the Bengals also got a perfect 3-for-3 day from kicker Mike Nugent, who was given the game ball. The 10-year veteran played for the first time since the sudden death of his father, Daniel, last Monday.

As the Bengals prepare for a Monday night matchup with Denver, it's important they hold on to their identity as a truly physical football team. It simply is who they must be.
CLEVELAND -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cincinnati Bengals' 30-0 win over the Cleveland Browns:
  • Hill
    Powder-toss diss: At the end of his 2-yard touchdown run in the first quarter Sunday, Bengals running back Jeremy Hill broke into one of his patented touchdown dances. Earlier this year, he has performed the popular "Shmoney" dance, and even did his own rendition of the "Ickey Shuffle," named after former Bengals back Ickey Woods, who made the dance famous in the Bengals' 1988 AFC championship run. This time, he broke into a "Whip" dance before adding a move that mirrored LeBron James' pregame powder toss. Hill didn't finish the Cleveland Cavaliers star's move, though, knocking the "powder" down with a hand. After the game, Hill was told James had been in attendance. It didn't faze him. "I'm actually a Lakers fan," he said. "I'm a Kobe [Bryant] guy."
  • 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 -- It appears Cincinnati Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham's injured toe responded poorly to a series of tests he put it through hours before Sunday's game with the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium.

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:

Bengals inactives
QB AJ McCarron
WR Dane Sanzenbacher
CB Terence Newman
OT Tanner Hawkinson
TE Jermaine Gresham
WR James Wright
DE Margus Hunt

Browns inactives
DB K'Waun Williams
DB Tashaun Gipson
RB Glenn Winston
DB Robert Nelson
LB Karlos Dansby
OL Vinston Painter
TE Gary Barnidge
CINCINNATI -- Vontaze Burfict has been absent from the Cincinnati Bengals' defensive huddles the last six weeks, but at least one of his teammates can barely tell.

Defensive end Wallace Gilberry said earlier this week that the "Will" linebacker's replacement, Vincent Rey, has started turning into a more diminutive version of Burfict. Rey, according to Gilberry, is letting his inner dog show.


"Vinny's become a little mean," Gilberry said. "I don't know what's going on with him, but he's becoming a little pit bull."

Told what the lineman said about his new attitude, Rey, sporting a pair of thick, black-rimmed glasses, smirked and said, "I think that's a good thing."

It is. It's especially a good thing for a player who off the field looks more like a history teacher than a linebacker. Among the many approachable defenders in the Bengals' locker room, Vincent Rey and the word "mean" don't really seem to go together. This week, though, when the Bengals travel to Cleveland for an important AFC North game against the Browns, they must.

That's mainly because Rey will be the linchpin in a Bengals defense that is facing Johnny Manziel in his first career start. A mobile quarterback noted for his ability to extend plays and to escape the pocket, Manziel presents a unique challenge. While there isn't much film on the rookie -- he's only played 17 snaps this year -- he is coming off a college career that was full of highlight-reel worthy moments.

For that reason, Rey believes the Bengals can't get too worked up if Manziel picks up big gains sporadically throughout the game. The key will be to keep them as inconsistent as possible.

"He is going to make some plays," Rey said. "Heisman Trophy winner, he made a lot of plays in college. But it's on us to keep doing our jobs and to work together as a unit. When we do that, we play well."

Coach Marvin Lewis has been adamant this week in getting his players to realize that the best way to combat the read-option is to maintain their assignments.

Rey has understood that.

"My approach is getting all of us on defense getting lined up right," Rey said. "If we're all lined up right, especially in the front seven, we'll give ourselves a good chance to get plays stopped."

That's where being a pit bull can come in handy. As long as Rey remains firm in his rattling off of play responsibilities and assertively calls out any pre-snap changes, his teammates will pay attention to him.

They'll also keep paying attention if he continues to play as authoritatively as he has. Last week he had 15 tackles, one shy of the career-high 16 he had at Indianapolis earlier this year.

In his first seven games, including the Colts game, when he mostly relieved Burfict after in-game injuries, Rey averaged 5.4 tackles. In the six contests since he started in place of the Pro Bowl linebacker, Rey has averaged 9.8 tackles.

Rey contends that little has changed with respect to his approach since Burfict's latest injury. But he does acknowledge that having a better respect for the sport and being more confident in setting the defense because of his off-field study.

"It's one thing to prepare your body, but I've realized that preparing your mind to go out there and stop these great players in this league is very important," Rey said.

The Bengals hope the pit bull will be ready Sunday for his one of his toughest tests yet.
CINCINNATI -- Hue Jackson heard about it. Andy Dalton did, too.

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.
CINCINNATI -- A.J. Green was adamant last week about putting on a show during his final four games of the regular season.

 "It' what you do in December," the Pro Bowl receiver said. "Anything before this really doesn't matter."

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."

Bengals vs. Browns preview

December, 11, 2014
Dec 11
When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday Where: FirstEnergy Stadium, Cleveland TV: Fox

BEREA, Ohio — Cleveland was abuzz the most recent time the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals played.

The Browns dominated on a Thursday night, and fans who made the trip down Interstate 71 were chanting “Bri-an Hoy-er” during the game and escorting him off the field to heartfelt applause.

Now, Hoyer will be watching as Johnny Manziel makes his first start, with the Browns losing three of four since the win in Cincinnati.

The Bengals, meanwhile, remain in first place in the AFC North and need this victory to stay there. The Browns need it to keep any playoff hope they have alive.

Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and Browns reporter Pat McManamon preview Sunday’s game.

McManamon: Marvin Lewis clearly made a big mistake using the word he did about Manziel. What I wonder is this: Is that reflective of the low regard Lewis has for Manziel?

Harvey: First, let me say you’re absolutely right. Lewis made a tremendous mistake using a word to describe Manziel that I know he wished he could have taken back as soon as he said it. It’s worth pointing out Lewis has issued two apologies for saying it, including one Tuesday that had very real contrition and remorse behind it. Kudos to him for the statement.

As for his attitude toward Johnny Football, you might be on to something, Pat. If the head coach holds the rookie in low regard, you’d have to imagine that filters down to the players, too, right? The Bengals simply can’t afford to entertain thoughts such as that, though, which might ultimately make it a good thing for them that Lewis’ comment came to light. Now they have a chance to see how seriously the rest of the football world reacted to it, and maybe that will be enough to keep them serious about preparing for the rookie.

On Manziel, I will say this: I think there is league-wide skepticism among players and coaches, and until he torches a team, some are going to wonder if he has what it takes to last in the NFL. He certainly has a chance to put his stamp on the franchise this weekend.

We know that at this time of year, teams adopt a “survive and advance” mentality. The Browns, of course, made the move to Manziel because they believe he gives them the best chance to win right now. But what about long term? Without the benefit of seeing him yet this weekend, has he done enough to convince the brass he truly is the future in Cleveland?

McManamon: The only thing he’s done to prove anything long-term is be drafted in the first round and bring the excitement to Cleveland that he brought to Texas A&M. At this point, nobody knows, and it almost seems Manziel is starting by default. If Hoyer had produced decently against Indianapolis and the Browns had won, the job would be Hoyer’s. It almost seemed Mike Pettine wanted to be able to stick with the same starter all season, but his hand was forced by recent offensive and quarterback struggles.

Nobody truly knows if Manziel is ready to run a complex system, to read coverage and pressures, to stand in the pocket and make a throw. There are many opinions about his readiness to do so, but we've seen nothing concrete -- other than how he plays in the next three games.

Manziel's strength is the ability to move and escape. How does that fare against Cincinnati's defense?

Harvey: Truthfully, it could be problematic for Bengals defenders. In consecutive weeks in October, the unit faced Cam Newton and Andrew Luck, two bigger-bodied signal-callers who know how to extend a pocket and sometimes race outside of it. In Newton’s case, he was so good about eluding defenders, particularly on the read-option, he rushed for 107 yards. Quarterbacks aren’t supposed to gain that many yards on the ground in a game, no matter who they are. Although Luck didn’t really run the next week, the threat of his potential to escape gave the Bengals something else to prepare for in their 27-0 loss at Indianapolis.

Part of the issue in those two games was defensive tackle Geno Atkins seldom got pressure through the line’s interior, in both read-option and passing situations. The ends didn’t do a good job of pinching the pocket, either. There were problems at linebacker, particularly in the second game, after outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict suffered a first-quarter injury. With other linebackers hurt, the Bengals played three backups at those positions, and communication issues ran rampant. Although they won’t have Burfict this week, the Bengals do at least have a better assembled group at linebacker this week. They could be the most important players in Cincinnati’s defense to counter Manziel.

I know you were floored by Cleveland’s not using Josh Gordon last week. What, if anything, gives you optimism he’ll get back to his dominant, productive self this week?

McManamon: I don’t know that I’m optimistic, because I was convinced Gordon would come off his suspension eager and determined to prove to his teammates and fans that he had dedicated himself to coming back ready to contribute. It looked that way against Atlanta, but it didn’t in the past six quarters against Buffalo and Indianapolis.

Some could put this on the quarterback. I don’t. Gordon has seemed confused and lackadaisical. By the coach’s admission, Gordon has not gone all-out on some balls. He missed some key catches that great receivers make. The fact that it didn’t happen in the first three games is more than disappointing. His pride and, perhaps, the presence of Manziel are the only intangibles to grab onto to trust he improves.

A.J. Green had a huge game last week, but he gets his nemesis Joe Haden this week. Can Green escape the funk he's been in when facing Haden?

Harvey: I’m going to go out on a limb and say yes. Here’s why: We are currently looking at arguably the best stretch of football Green has had in his career. He’s gained more than 100 yards receiving in three of his past four games. He’s also set personal records in those games and came close to franchise marks,. He had a career-high 12 catches at Houston three weeks ago and then a career-high in yards with 224 this past Sunday against the Steelers. Speaking of the Steelers, all but three of Green’s 11 catches came on cornerback Ike Taylor, who, like Haden, had been owning the Pro Bowl wide receiver over the years.

Yes, Taylor might have lost a step this season after a series of injuries, and Haden might know Green better than any corner in the game because of their battles dating back to college, but I still like Green’s chances this week. Haden will probably restrict Green from going long, which means screens and slants are possibilities. I wouldn’t expect a 100-yard game from Green, but an eight-catch, 90-yard, one-touchdown line wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility. Now that Green’s right toe is back to full health (it wasn’t in the first meeting), this should be the most intriguing matchup of the game.

After the teams’ November meeting, Bengals rookie running back Jeremy Hill said he didn’t think the Browns were all that good. Clearly, Cleveland’s defense is pretty solid, though (it ranks better than Cincinnati’s). How much might Hill’s comments serve as bulletin-board material for the defense this week?

McManamon: If any words inspire anyone, Coley, it might be Lewis’ dismissive remark about Manziel. That might anger the rookie enough to keep him a touch more focused and motivated.

In truth, though, I don’t put much stock in verbal sparring energizing a team. If you need words to get you going, you’ve been cheating your team in previous games because you didn’t give your all. The discussion about it sounds interesting leading up to the game, but it’s forgotten if the insulted team does not win. Remember before the first meeting, when Greg Little said someone had to pay?

Guys can use the words to stoke their fires, but it still comes down to blocking, catching, running and tackling. Hill’s words, while silly and inflammatory, might be treated with a shrug. The Browns have enough on their plates in trying to stay alive in a playoff hunt with a rookie quarterback.
CINCINNATI -- Vontaze Burfict is facing a quandary.

According to Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, the Pro Bowl linebacker has to decide in the coming days whether to undergo another surgery to better strengthen his left knee, or to simply let it heal naturally from its previous procedure and go through rehab the next several months.

So far, Burfict hasn't been able to make up his mind.

"He can't decide, which is where we were the first time around with him," Lewis said during his Wednesday news conference.

On Tuesday, the Bengals officially ended Burfict's season, bringing weeks of suspense and intrigue to a close when they placed him on the season-ending injured reserve. He became their ninth player to go on IR this season, and the second in as many weeks. Currently, the Bengals have eight players on IR after linebacker J.K. Schaffer was waived last week after completing his rehab duties from a preseason concussion.

Tight end Tyler Eifert also still is on IR after being given a "to return" designation back in Week 2. He has been eligible to practice for more than a month but has not practiced.

Burfict missed the last six games after hurting his left knee early in the Bengals' Week 8 home victory over Baltimore. He finished the game, but doctors later found that he had worn down cartilage in the knee and needed arthroscopic surgery. He underwent the procedure Oct. 29 in hopes of missing one or two games. The Bengals never formally announced an expected return date, but coach Marvin Lewis hinted early on that Burfict shouldn't be away for long.

Clearly, that didn't happen.

"Well, we don't ever give a timeline on a diagnosis. That's why," Lewis said. "Each injury has to be treated with whatever is required, whatever is affected, and then go from there. But we can't put a timeline on a player. We try not ever to. Sometimes the player makes the decision to have the treatment go a certain way based on, 'How can I get back if I can?' but ultimately, the decision has to be based on his career going further out."

Lewis said he thought Burfict would be back in time to start next season if he elected to have surgery. Asked if microfracture surgery was an option like Texans rookie defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, Lewis declined to say yes or no. Clowney is expected to miss some time next season even after going through the microfracture surgery this year.

"I shouldn't have put a timeline on it," Lewis said in response to the microfracture surgery option for Burfict. "We'll see."

Part of the reason Burfict has had a tough time making a decision, just as he did with the first surgery, is that this is relatively foreign territory for him. October's procedure was the first time he had ever had surgery. The linebacker's competitive streak might be getting in the way, too. Until this year, little as far as bumps, bruises and scrapes had kept him off the field. If he took a hard shot in a game, he often was right back on the field a few plays later.

"On Sunday, he told me he was ready to play," Lewis said, cracking a smile. "That's why he is what he is. He's such a competitor and everything."



Sunday, 12/21
Monday, 12/22