By Nate Ulrich
Beacon Journal sports writer
Quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green led the Cincinnati Bengals to the playoffs in each of their first two NFL seasons, and many believe the franchise is now headed for bigger and better things.
The Bengals received a ton of media attention before this season started. They were featured on HBO’s Hard Knocks and became a popular pick to win the Super Bowl.
The buzz certainly wasn’t killed Sunday when they defeated the Green Bay Packers 34-30 in dramatic fashion. On fourth-and-1 at their 30-yard line, the Bengals forced a fumble, safety Reggie Nelson recovered before losing the ball and cornerback Terence Newman scooped it up and returned it 58 yards for the game-winning touchdown with 3:47 remaining.
“We just took that next step,” Green told the Cincinnati Enquirer after the game. “That was our motto — just taking that next step. Last year, we couldn’t beat the signature teams that we wanted to, but this year, we’re trying one-by-one to take that next step.”
The Browns, of course, had their own wild finish Sunday when quarterback Brian Hoyer capped an 11-play, 55-yard drive by throwing a 7-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jordan Cameron with 51 seconds left, lifting the team to its first win of the season, a 31-27 triumph over the Minnesota Vikings at the Metrodome. Hoyer will likely start for the Browns (1-2) on Sunday when they host the Bengals in the 80th edition of the “Battle of Ohio,” because he delivered in the clutch and quarterback Brandon Weeden is still recovering from a sprained right thumb.
The AFC North produced a Super Bowl champion last season when the Baltimore Ravens won the title, and the Bengals appear to be legitimate contenders to keep the Lombardi Trophy in the division. The Browns obviously aren’t in that class, but they split their series against the Bengals last season and will aim for another upset.
Joe Reedy covers the Bengals for the Cincinnati Enquirer. He discussed the team in the following question-and-answer session:
Q: What do you think the Bengals proved to themselves by defeating the Packers?
A: It certainly went a long way toward showing that they might be ready to take the next step. It also avenged a loss to Chicago where they turned the ball over three times and basically gave Chicago 17 points. It’s also one of those wins that they needed to get — against a playoff team with a Pro Bowl quarterback and a tough defense. In many ways, it could be like Week 3 in 2009, when they rallied to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, which put them on a path to win the division. Of course, the following week they went up to Cleveland and nearly lost until Shayne Graham kicked a field goal on the last play of overtime that [former Browns defensive coordinator] Rob Ryan still thinks wasn’t good.
Q: There was a lot of hype surrounding the Bengals heading into this season. Three games probably isn’t an adequate sample size, but do you have a feeling about whether the buzz is justified?
A: They have a top-10 defense, but the questions have all been about Andy Dalton and the offense. Take away the first half of the Pittsburgh game, and Dalton has played pretty well. Accuracy has been good, sacks have been down and he’s comfortable in a system where all of the starters are back and you add two solid draft picks in tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard. Receivers Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones have also had solid starts.
Q: Who or what has been the most pleasant surprise and the biggest disappointment for the Bengals so far?
A: Most pleasant surprise has to be Bernard, who might become the lead back soon. He had more snaps than BenJarvus Green-Ellis mostly because the Bengals were behind and needed a change-of-pace back in there. Bernard is the first Bengals back since ’09 to have two straight games with a reception of 20 yards or more. Disappointment has to be defensive tackle Geno Atkins with only one sack through the first three games. He’s generating some pressure but not as much as many had hoped. Then again, when you sign a five-year, $55 million extension, most teams start paying more attention to you.
Q: Is there a matchup you think the Bengals should worry about when they face the Browns?
A: Tight end Jordan Cameron against the Bengals linebackers, who have been known to struggle in coverage. If cornerback Leon Hall is out due to a hamstring pull, wide receiver Josh Gordon could have another big day. He had a big reception in last year’s game at Cleveland due to a breakdown in coverage.
Q: Can you finish this thought? The Bengals won’t be upset by the Browns as long as they …
A: Don’t turn the ball over. They lost the Chicago game because of it and gave Green Bay 16 points last week due to it.
Follow Joe Reedy on Twitter: @joereedy. Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.