Browns Await Bengals on Long Road Back to Playoffs
Cincinnati Looks to End 14-Year Postseason Drought, Spoil Crennel's Debut

After finishing strong last year but again falling short of the postseason, the Cincinnati Bengals know the importance of a good start.

The Bengals, who have not made the playoffs since 1990, will try to spoil the debut of coach Romeo Crennel as they visit the Cleveland Browns.

Cincinnati has finished 8-8 after losing four of its first five games in each of the last two seasons under coach Marvin Lewis. Before Lewis arrived, the Bengals hadn't managed seven wins in a season since 1997.

Last year, a slow start was understandable as Carson Palmer became the Bengals No. 1 quarterback after not taking a snap as a rookie in 2003. Palmer improved steadily and threw for 835 yards and nine touchdowns in the last three games of 2004.

"We have to win," offensive tackle Willie Anderson said about the season opener. "We have to go up there not sugarcoating this thing."

The Bengals have talent around Palmer in running back Rudi Johnson and receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Rudi Johnson made just five starts in his first three seasons, but helped Cincinnati overcome the departure of Corey Dillon as he rushed for 1,454 yards and 12 TDs.

Chad Johnson started the Pro Bowl for a second straight season after recording a career-high 95 receptions and 1,274 yards.

"We need (a good start). Our whole key to our success is the first five games," he said. "The first five games will tell us whether we're going to the postseason or not."

The Bengals have lost 10 of their last 14 season openers, including a 24-7 defeat on Sept. 10, 2000, in the first game at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

"The last couple of years, we were sitting at home after being 8-8," Anderson said. "We won five games down the stretch, but lost three or four early on that cost us. So we realize the importance."

While the Bengals have gone quite some time without a playoff appearance, Crennel waited even longer to become a head coach. After 24 years as an NFL assistant, including four seasons as defensive coordinator for the three-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, Crennel takes over a team that has not won a playoff game since 1995.

Cleveland won its opener last year, but lost eight of its next 10 games before coach Butch Davis resigned. With a slew of injuries, the Browns lost four straight under interim coach Terry Robiskie before ending the season with a 22-14 victory at Houston.

Due to injury and ineffectiveness, the Browns rotated Jeff Garcia, Kelly Holcomb and Luke McCown at quarterback last season. This year, Crennel is hoping veteran Trent Dilfer will provide a steady presence behind center.

Dilfer was the quarterback for the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens in 2000, when Lewis was defensive coordinator. The 33-year-old signed with Seattle the following season, but appeared in 23 games in four seasons with the Seahawks.

Last year as Matt Hasselbeck's backup, Dilfer completed 25 of 58 passes for 333 yards and a touchdown with three interceptions in five games. The Browns gave Dilfer a four-year, $8 million contract and his experience will be key with the backup being third-round pick Charlie Frye.

"The pressure makes me feel more alive, and I embrace the hard times as well as the good times. It's just exciting to go into that huddle and have everybody look you in the eyes and know they depend on you," Dilfer said.

While Dilfer will have a chance to revitalize his career, receiver Antonio Bryant gets an opportunity to fulfill his potential. Bryant was acquired from Dallas for receiver Quincy Morgan last October after tossing a jersey at Cowboys coach Bill Parcells during a mini-camp argument.

Bryant has big-play capability and showed it with a 51-yard touchdown catch from Dilfer in a preseason win over Detroit.

Game Info

TV: CBS | Time: Sun., 1PM ET
Site: Cleveland - Cleveland Browns Stadium
2004 Records: CLE (4-12) | CIN (8-8)
Line: Bengals by 3 1/2
Last Meeting: Nov. 28; Bengals, 58-48.
At Cincinnati, Palmer threw for 251 yards
and four touchdowns to overcome a
Browns-record five TDs by Holcomb as the
teams combined for the second-highest
scoring game in NFL history.
More Info: Weather | Schedule

"He's had a great camp," Dilfer said. "He's really developing into a fine player. I want to try and give him the ball every chance that I get. He made a very average pass look good - he attacked the football in the air. When you have guys that will do that for you, and I have not had many of those in my career, it makes you willing to make more aggressive decisions in plays."

Cleveland may have to do without its top running back as Lee Suggs missed the final three preseason games with a sprained ankle. Suggs ended last season with three straight 100-yard games. If he is unavailable, Reuben Droughns and William Green could split the carries.

"The starter might be a game time decision to give Cincinnati something to think about," Crennel said.

While Crennel had one of the top defenses in the league with New England, he inherits a unit that was ranked last against the run and 15th overall in 2004.

2004 Standings: Bengals - 3rd place, AFC North. Browns - 4th place, AFC North.

2004 Bengals Leaders: Offense - Palmer, 2,897 passing yards and 18 passing TDs; Rudi Johnson, 1,454 rushing yards and 12 rushing TDs; Chad Johnson, 95 receptions, 1,274 receiving yards and 9 receiving TDs. Defense - Justin Smith, 8 sacks; Tory James, 8 INTs.

2004 Browns Leaders: Offense - Garcia, 1,731 passing yards and 10 passing TDs; Suggs, 744 rushing yards; Garcia, Green and Suggs, 2 rushing TDs; Dennis Northcutt, 55 receptions and 806 receiving yards; Steve Heiden, 5 receiving TDs. Defense - Ebenezer Ekuban, 8 sacks; Anthony Henry, 4 INTs.

2004 Bengals Team Rank: Rushing Offense - 114.9 yards per game (17th in NFL); Passing Offense - 206.3 ypg (17th); Total Offense - 321.5 ypg (18th). Rushing Defense - 128.9 ypg (26th); Passing Defense - 206.4 ypg (13th); Total Defense - 335.3 ypg (19th).

2004 Browns Team Rank: Rushing Offense - 103.6 ypg (23rd); Passing Offense - 176.5 ypg (25th); Total Offense - 280.1 ypg (28th). Rushing Defense - 144.6 ypg (32nd); Passing Defense - 181.3 ypg (5th); Total Defense - 325.9 ypg (15th).

Last Meeting: Nov. 28; Bengals, 58-48. At Cincinnati, Palmer threw for 251 yards and four touchdowns to overcome a Browns-record five TDs by Holcomb as the teams combined for the second-highest scoring game in NFL history.

Streaks and Notes: Bengals - CB James had two INTs in a 34-17 loss at Cleveland last Oct. 17. ... Under Lewis, Cincinnati is 9-1 when posting a positive-turnover ratio. ... QB Palmer has thrown at least two TD passes in each of his last four starts. Browns - QB Dilfer has a 97.5 passer rating in three games against the Bengals, completing 45 of 76 passes for 540 yards with five TDs and one INT. ... Cleveland has forced five turnovers and recorded six sacks in its last four games against Cincinnati. ... WR Northcutt needs 77 punt-return yards to break the team record held by Gerald McNeil (1,545).

2004 Road/Home Records: Bengals - 3-5 on the road; Browns - 3-5 at home.

Injuries: Bengals - QUESTIONABLE: WR Kelley Washington (hamstring). PROBABLE: CB James (toe). Browns - DOUBTFUL: CB Gary Baxter (concussion); RB Suggs (ankle). QUESTIONABLE: TE Aaron Shea (shoulder).

09/07/05 19:23 EDT