CLEVELAND— The Bengals believe this is their year, the one when they finally put it all together. No more excuses. No more playoff flops.
Cincinnati, which spent the summer in the spotlight on HBO's "Hard Knocks" and is being touted as a team to watch this season, has its sights on winning the AFC North and making a legitimate run at a Super Bowl championship.
A young team has earned its stripes.
"They're special," Browns cornerback Joe Haden said. "They're starting to get it. They feel like they're finally starting to get over that hump and get on top."
It's a long, unpredictable road to the Lombardi Trophy, and this week it takes the Bengals up Interstate-71 for their yearly visit to the Browns (1-2) in the 80th edition of the "Battle of Ohio." The Bengals hold the series edge 42-37.
Coming off one of the most unimaginable wins in team history, the Bengals (2-1), who overcame four turnovers and a 16-point deficit to beat Green Bay last week, will play five of their next seven games away from home. They can't be as sloppy against the Browns (1-2).
"Cleveland is a special place because it's a division game on the road," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "We know how difficult it is: the fans, the crowd. We know what kind of environment it's going to be. This is a big game for us."
For the Browns, Sunday's game is a chance to erase an 0-2 start and maybe for hometown quarterback Brian Hoyer to secure a first-string job. Hoyer, who began the season third on Cleveland's depth chart, threw three touchdown passes last week in Minnesota and the Browns pulled out all the stops in getting coach Rob Chudzinski his first win.
Here are five things to know about Bengals-Browns:
HOYER'S HOMECOMING: Hoyer feels a kinship with former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar, who made his NFL debut on Oct. 13, 1985 — the day Hoyer was born.
Filling in for injured Brandon Weeden, Hoyer was praised by teammates and coaches for his poise in his second NFL start. It wasn't perfect — he threw three interceptions — but the 27-year-old fought back from each mistake and threw a TD pass with 51 seconds left. As a kid, Hoyer attended Browns games and remembers crying at the final one in old Cleveland Stadium before the team moved to Baltimore.
"Sure, it means a lot," Hoyer said of first home game as Cleveland's QB. "It's going to be special, but once they kick that ball off and you're between those white lines, that's what you've got to worry about."
DANDY ANDY: Bengals QB Andy Dalton shook off a shaky first half last week to rally his team.
After passing for just 67 yards and throwing a pick before halftime, Dalton went 13 of 16 for 168 yards and two TDs in the second half.
"The biggest thing from that game is that as many ups and downs as there were, we fought to the end," Dalton said.
"That speaks volumes of this team and what kind of guys we have. There was no quit in us. It was great to see."
FRIENDLY RIVALRY: Bengals WR A.J. Green and Browns CB Joe Haden will renew a feud that goes back to their college days.
Two of the league's premier players at their respective positions, the Green-Haden matchup alone is worth the price of admission. Green has had some big games against the Browns, catching seven passes for 135 yards and two TDs last year in Cleveland.
"Yeah," Haden said. "But we won, so I got the best of it."
HOLD THAT, TIGER: The Bengals had five fumbles last week and have dropped the ball seven times in three games. Fortunately, they recovered four of the miscues, but Dalton knows the mistakes must be minimized.
"It's something that we have to stress and know that we have to be better at because if you turn the ball over that many times, it's hard to win the game," Dalton said. "For us it's definitely a point of emphasis to protect the ball."
The Browns beat the Bengals in Cleveland last year 34-24 when the Bengals committed four turnovers.
AIR JORDAN: Browns tight end Jordan Cameron wants to be known as more than a former college basketball player. With another game like last week, that won't be a problem.
Cameron caught three TD passes, including the winner, as the Browns stunned the Vikings. Through three games,
Cameron, who started on BYU's hoops team and then walked-on at USC, leads the Browns in receptions, yards and touchdowns.
"I'm just trying to be a playmaker for this team," Cameron said. "It's not one of those things (where) I was going to have any judgments on myself for the season. I just wanted to be a guy this team could count on, be reliable."
NOTES: The Bengals' secondary is banged up with CB Leon Hall (hamstring), CB Dre Kirkpatrick (hamstring), S Reggie Nelson (hamstring) all doubtful … Browns starting linebacker Jabaal Sheard is doubtful, which could give rookie Barkevious Mingo his first
NFL start. Sheard sprained his left knee last week against Minnesota and did not practice all week .... Defensive end Billy Winn will not play because of a leg injury. Those losses will test Cleveland's defensive depth, which has been a major plus for the Browns. But defensive coordinator Ray Horton, a former Bengals cornerback, has built a solid front seven and wasn't concerned it might be missing a couple key pieces … Browns kicker Billy Cundiff did some kicking in practice after being sideline with a quadriceps injury. He was hurt in the fourth quarter last week, forcing punter Spencer Lanning to kick an extra point.