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Bengals Preview, Week Fifteen: Browns

The Cincinnati Bengals have faced a lot of Browns quarterbacks, but none as famous as Johnny Manziel. He has good reason to be famous. He is a Heisman Trophy winner, a documented party animal, has a cool style of play and because of all these things, has become a media sensation, despite not starting a game in his professional career to this point.

Until now.

What a spot he's been put in. If Cleveland were 4-9 and Manziel was given the nod to start the remaining three games, it would generate interest but would not be the lead story. The fact the Browns are on the playoff cusp and now look to the rookie to save a ship taking on water, the game on Sunday has become his pivotal moment to show the world what Mr. Football is made of.

If he beats the Bengals, vaults the Browns into the postseason and makes Cleveland the hot spot for sports stars, his hype will know no end. If he stumbles in his professional infancy, loses games and throws interceptions, scores of detractors will line up to say I told you so. In marketing, exposure and sheer stardom terms, Manziel has the chance to make many, many millions of more dollars beginning this weekend if he plays well.

All of this hype and attention, much to the chagrin of the Bengals, has once more fixed the spotlight on the men in stripes. It has been well documented how the Bengals wither when the attention falls even close to them, and now they get to become the first test subject of the great Johnny Football experiment. Not only that, but this Cincinnati defense is coming off of a week where they were beaten on both sides of the trenches and allowed the Pittsburgh Steelers to impose their will in the second half of last week's game. Throw in the news that Vontaze Burfict will not be returning this season after all—rendering 2014 as a wasted year for the promising youngster fresh off of a new contract—and the confidence of outsiders seems to have waned again toward the Bengals and their ability to triumph in the end.

The analysis aspect is difficult to generate because of the lack of Johnny tape, but if one were to cast Manziel into a prototype of an existing starter (or in this case, former starter), it might be one of Robert Griffith III. We watched RGIII amaze us his rookie season with his astounding athletic ability, but due to his inability to avoid taking damaging hits, his career has spiraled downward since. Manziel is not even as big as RGIII, and he too has not demonstrated the patience to step out of bounds rather than keep the play alive and eventually get hit, but every person is different, and even though he is small, it would be unfair to label him injury-prone before he gets injured.

Like RGIII, though, Manziel brings an additional rushing element that is above your average mobile quarterback, and the Bengals will have to account for it or they will get roasted. The Browns have found a surprisingly effective run game combining Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West and they collectively pounded the Bengals back in November, racking up 170 yards of rushing offense and keeping the Bengals offense off of the field for any kind of comeback attempt.

Also making life harder for Cincinnati is the fact that Josh Gordon has returned from suspension and last year's league-leading receiver is anxious to get loose on a secondary. The Bengals secondary looked especially aged and vulnerable as they gave up the most passing yards all season, exemplified by Leon Hall getting toasted for a 94-yard touchdown score when the team desperately needed a stop.

The pieces are there for Cleveland to not only win on Sunday, but make a push in the season's last few games. The question then becomes, will the offense immediately fall in sync with a new signal-caller under center or will there be kinks that need worked out before this current group can be at their best? It would seem logical if Cincinnati showed Manziel unusual looks in unpredictable situations, to throw off the rookie and keep him guessing, but the Bengals don't do much of that kind of thing.

The psyche of this team remains fragile, even though they have the best record in the best division in football. When the lose, they get completely hammered by the opposing team and each time it's so severe it gives the world reason to doubt their long term success. The problem seems to be that when bad things happen to this team, they willingly unravel the rest of the way. That was demonstrated last week when a fourth-quarter lead exploded in their faces after Andy Dalton fumbled trying to pull the ball away on a read-option with Jeremy Hill. The defense responded by allowing three straight touchdowns and the offense followed suit with three straight punts.

It's hard to find a team that leads their division but is so ready to collapse at a single setback. The Browns and their fans are probably licking their chops at the chance of getting back at a team they manhandled a month ago. If Manziel starts to gain steam in this game and shows his money gesture to the home crowd multiple times, it may be enough to sink the battle ship for the Bengals this season with two tougher games following Cleveland. If they can put the Manziel issue to bed by beating him and stopping the run, they could still become a dangerous team that nobody respects come January.

Bengals 20, Browns 14

Written by Bryan Burke, associate editor

Photo via Bengals Facebook