The Browns' Brandon Weeden, left, was named the team's starter despite being a rookie. There's a good chance today's game against the Bengals will be the first of many times that he faces Andy Dalton.
Associated Press Enlarge
CINCINNATI -- Brian Sipe and Ken Anderson. Bernie Kosar and Boomer Esiason. The state's NFL rivalry was at its best when it had a pair of quarterbacks who could get their teams into the end zone and the playoffs with regularity.
For years, it's been the missing ingredient in a Browns-Bengals rivalry gone one-sided. Cincinnati has won 12 of the last 15 games heading into the rematch today at Paul Brown Stadium, the only constant over the last few years as the franchises continually try to remake themselves.
"There's been a lot of turnover in Cleveland, and there's obviously a lot of new faces here," said Bengals center Jeff Faine, who was the Browns' top pick in 2003. "So we'll just see what happens Sunday."
Two of the youngest will be the ones most closely watched.
The Browns (0-1) and Bengals (0-1) hope they've finally got quarterbacks capable of taking their series and their seasons to the next level. Cincinnati went to the playoffs last year behind Andy Dalton, who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie. Cleveland hitched its future to rookie Brandon Weeden.
It's going to take some time, of course. And as they get ready for their first head-to-head meeting, both are coming off awful openers that were reminders of how far they have to go.
Dalton threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown and fumbled during a 44-13 loss in Baltimore on Monday night that matched the worst season-opening drubbing in franchise history. Weeden made his pro debut in Cleveland, threw four interceptions and finished with a passer rating of 5.1 that was among the worst ever for a debut.
"It can't be any worse than it was the first week, and I mean that jokingly," Weeden said. "We're all going to have rough stretches. I think obviously mine was the first week. I look at the mistakes I made, and you guys saw them. Guys were wide open, and I missed them. That's not my character. That's not the way I usually throw the football. I'm confident."
So is Dalton, whose many good moments were undone by a handful of bad throws, particularly an interception under pressure that Ed Reed returned for a decisive touchdown.
"Missed opportunities," Dalton said. "We had just a couple missed assignments here and there, and it changed the game. Can't throw that interception -- I've got to make a better throw. There's going to be pressure, I've got to stand in there and still make it."
They'll have a full stadium watching today, which marks a notable change in the rivalry. With Cleveland only a four-hour drive away, a full crowd was the norm at 65,515-seat Paul Brown Stadium, named after the coach who led the Browns to prominence.
The 2010 game drew only 56,342 fans, and only 48,260 showed up last year -- one of six Bengals home games that failed to sell out. This year's game sold out only four days in advance, a sign that there's still a lot of work to do in rebuilding the rivalry.
"It still is a great rivalry," said defensive end Frostee Rucker, who went from Cincinnati to Cleveland as a free agent in the offseason. "It never comes down to records or anything like that. Playing in Cleveland or in Cincinnati, you're going to get a very competitive, physical game.
"And that's why I'm so glad that I stayed in Ohio and can play in the AFC North where I know this is my type of football. You can get after it and be physical and get bloody, and that's what it is."
The question is whether the young quarterbacks can turn it back into a must-see event.
Thirteen years ago, both franchise thought they were headed that way. Cleveland took Tim Couch with the first overall pick, choosing him over Akili Smith. The Bengals grabbed Smith with the third overall pick, putting a little spice into what appeared to be a rivalry ready for renewal.
"We're going to be competing for the rest of our lives," Smith said after the draft.
But Smith lasted only four seasons in Cincinnati and won three games -- two of them against Cleveland. Couch lasted five seasons in Cleveland and won 22 games. Some of their best moments came against each other. Smith led a last-minute touchdown drive in Cleveland in 1999, then pounded his chest at the Dawg Pound. Couch led the Browns to a 24-7 win in the first game at Paul Brown Stadium a year later.
After that encouraging start, it all came apart. The Browns have repeatedly changed quarterbacks and accomplished two winning seasons. The Bengals have managed three winning seasons. And the intrastate rivalry has gone south.
"In Cleveland, the rivalry's Pittsburgh," Faine said. "That's all the fans really talk about."
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