Just when the Cincinnati Bengals needed a predictable pick- me-up, enter the Cleveland Browns.
The AFC North rivals complete their 2012 regular-season series on Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium, where the visiting Bengals will try to make it two in a row this year and five straight overall against the winless Browns, who are one loss away from a franchise-record 12 straight.
Cincinnati logged 33 points and 411.7 yards per game while winning three consecutive games in weeks 2, 3 and 4, then had a season-low 298 yards and turned it over three times while losing, 17-13, at home to Miami last week.
"The offense didn't play well across the board," quarterback Andy Dalton said. "It's tough sitting here where we are. We had our chances, but we couldn't get it done."
Dalton threw for 234 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions against the Dolphins, shortly after completing 24-of-31 passes for 318 yards and three scores in a 34-27 Week 2 win over Cleveland.
The Browns get cornerback Joe Haden back after he completed a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs with a positive test for the stimulant Adderall.
He'll return to face Cincinnati's Pro Bowl wideout A.J. Green, who had 58 receiving yards and scored once in the first 2012 matchup with Cleveland, sans Haden.
"Perfect timing," Haden said. "At least when I come back, I can try to make a statement going against somebody in the division like him. I feel like once I come back and just do my thing, then I'll just be back."
The Bengals are 4-for-25 on third downs over the last two games and have converted only 24.6 percent all season, second from last in the league.
"There were a couple 2nd-and-2s and 3rd-and-2s that we've got to convert to first downs," coach Marvin Lewis said. "That will keep us moving the football down the field a little better."
After losing running back Bernard Scott with a knee injury last week, the Bengals will lean on holdovers BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Brian Leonard and Cedric Peerman.
"It's unfortunate for (Scott), but we'll have to move on," offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. "I can just call the game the way it is and hopefully Cedric and Brian Leonard, with some more opportunities, will give us some different looks and BenJarvus the rest on the sideline when he needs it."
Green-Ellis gained 14 yards against Miami and is averaging 3.3 yards per carry, third-worst in the league among backs with 60 attempts. But he rushed for 75 against the Browns, who've allowed 4.7 per carry overall after being gashed 243 rushing yards in a two-touchdown Week 5 loss to the New York Giants.
Cleveland lost a 14-point lead, allowed 502 yards and committed three turnovers and 10 penalties against New York.
The Browns, who've not begun 0-6 since 1999, are winless since defeating Jacksonville on Nov. 20. The last time Cleveland lost 11 in a row, it ended the skid with a 35-23 home win over Cincinnati on Nov. 23, 1975.
Rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden had a season-best 322 yards and two scores in his first game with Cincinnati. But he's tied for the NFL lead with nine interceptions.
"I think he made progress," coach Pat Shurmur said. "There was some general efficiency there and there were a couple bad plays that he'd love to have back. How he responds to all that, that's this week's challenge as we get ready to play the Bengals."
Fellow rookie Trent Richardson has 303 yards and had his only 100-yard game against the Bengals. Still, Cincinnati has held its last two opponents to an average of 68.5 rush yards.
Richardson also leads Cleveland in receiving yards (169) and could continue to branch out if wideouts Mohamed Massaquoi and Travis Benjamin miss more time with balky hamstrings. The Browns may also miss linebacker D'Qwell Jackson (concussion) and defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin (leg).
Cincinnati leads the all-time series, 42-36, and has won 13 of the last 16 games. The Bengals won, 27-17, when they last met in Cleveland in September 2011.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Cornerback Haden and wide receiver Green meet for the third time as pros after two matchups in college while the former played at Florida and the latter at Georgia.
The 6-foot-4 Green had five catches for 91 yards and three catches for 50 yards in SEC losses to the 5-foot-11 Haden's Gators in 2008 and 2009 in Jacksonville, and has combined four just four catches -- but 151 yards and two touchdowns -- in two matchups since both became professionals.
"It's a matchup that we like," Dalton said. "A.J., we feel like he is talented and we can put him against anybody."
The respect is evident, however. Green referred to Haden as among the best corners he's faced, joining the ranks of the New York Jets' Darrelle Revis and Houston's Johnathan Joseph.
"He knows what I do and I know what he does," Green said. "He knows my strength. Just a battle, we are just going to be out there grinding we are going to see what happens. Definitely have respect for him because he's a great player in this league. You have to respect him."
Based solely on talent and weaponry and 2012 momentum, the Bengals win this one convincingly. But the Browns are beginning to get a feel for successful football, albeit not for a full 60 minutes at any one time. On their home field, against an in-state rival, the prolonged plummet ends here.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Browns 24, Bengals 21
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