Like fighters sitting in their corners, Cleveland and Cincinnati lie at the distal ends of Ohio, 244 miles apart as the crow flies but light years in charm, beauty, baseball and places to meet the opposite sex. Until last Sunday there was a great gap between Cleveland and Cincinnati in the AFC's Central Division, too, but just when the Browns seemed ready to deck the Bengals for the count, Cincinnati rose up and stunned the crowd of 81,932 in Cleveland's Municipal Stadium with a 10-7 victory in a penalty-filled bout. By upsetting the first-place Browns, the Bengals also turned the NFL's toughest division into the NFL's tightest division, with Cleveland at 5-3 now holding only a one-game lead over Pittsburgh, Houston and, that's right, Cincinnati. Stay tuned.
Cincinnati came north with a 3-4 record and a look of desperation. One more loss, the Bengals knew, and they could count on spending the Christmas holiday playoffs, not to mention Super Bowl Sunday, at home. So the Bengals immediately employed the one strategy that had always bailed them out. That is the passing of Quarterback Ken Anderson as programmed by the Bengal assistant coaches perched in the press box.
Anderson, who had missed parts of Cincinnati's three previous games because of the aftereffects of knee and thigh injuries, has never been mentioned alongside Staubach or Tarkenton as a quarterback with flair, but he wasted no time trying to establish his ground game or feeling out the Cleveland defense. On Cincinnati's first possession Anderson skillfully mixed the pass with the run and, aided by three offsides whistles against Cleveland End Joe (Turkey) Jones, moved the Bengals 74 yards to a touchdown in just five plays. On a first down Anderson hit Lenvil Elliott over the middle for 19 yards, and on a second-and-six call at the Browns' 41 he pitched to Isaac Curtis, who had been a doubtful starter because of a knee injury, for 30 yards down the sideline—and a first down at the Cleveland 11.
Anderson then did another smart thing. He gave the ball to rookie Fullback Pete Johnson, the 6'½", 250-pound bull who scored 58 touchdowns in his four years at Ohio State. Johnson broke through or knocked down Jerry Sherk, Dick Ambrose and Tony Peters on his way to the end zone.
Except for those occasions when Greg Pruitt gets loose from his jersey on a scintillating game-breaking run, Cleveland's offense is basically a nickel-and-dime attack, featuring the short-yardage passes of Quarterback Brian Sipe. Twice Sipe slowly moved the Browns inside the Cincinnati 25-yard line, but both times Cleveland came away empty, as first Cleo Miller fumbled the ball to the Bengals and then Don Cockroft missed a 40-yard field-goal try.
Undaunted, Sipe launched another interminable drive from midfield late in the second quarter. Reggie Rucker's sensational sideline catch kept the march alive, and four plays later Sipe passed four yards to Tight End Oscar Roan for the touchdown that tied the game 7-7.
But that was it for the Cleveland offense, and, for that matter, that was it for the Cincinnati attack, too. Sipe was intercepted twice in the second half, and he had another potential scoring drive aborted by another Miller fumble. Nor were the Browns helped by the 73 yards they lost on 12 penalties. Sipe also was sacked twice and Pruitt once for minus 30 yards in all.
Meanwhile, Cincinnati's defense, anchored by rookie Linemen Wilson Whitley and Eddie Edwards, kept the usually elusive Pruitt in tight check. Pruitt had rushed for more than 150 yards against New England and Kansas City, but the Bengals limited him to just 54 in 15 carries—and ripped off only one of his jerseys.
Cincinnati scored what proved to be the winning points when Chris Bahr kicked a 47-yard field goal following a Cleveland fumble early in the third quarter. All season long the Browns' Cockroft had been the best clutch field-goal kicker in the league, winning the Houston game with a 30-yarder in the last three seconds and the New England game with a 35-yarder in overtime. But Cockroft not only had his string of seven straight field goals end when he missed from the 40, he did not even get a chance to tie the game in the second half.
The Bengals thus gained a small measure of revenge for the 13-3 defeat that the Browns had handed them in the first game of the season. Before that Sunday, Cincinnati was rated as the best team in the division, better even than Pittsburgh, while Cleveland was considered an also-ran. But injuries have struck the Bengals hard, sidelining Anderson, Tight End Bob Trumpy, Safety Tommy Casanova and Running Backs Archie Griffin, Boobie Clark and Johnson, along with Curtis, the burner receiver. In fact, through the Bengals' first seven games Coach Bill (Tiger) Johnson was forced to start a different set of running backs each week. Worse still, Curtis has been off form even when healthy, catching only 15 passes in the Bengals' first seven games. He caught five against the Browns but later reinjured his knee and departed the locker room on crutches.
"Our passing attack has been different," said Anderson, who has thrown only two TD passes this season after connecting on 19 last year. "We've wanted to concentrate on our rushing game in order to be more consistent. We didn't want to have to go into a game knowing we'd have to throw the ball 30 times to win." Against the Browns, Anderson threw only 19 passes, completing 14 for 153 yards.
While the Bengals have been dogged by bad luck, the Browns have had fortune on their side. For instance, when Coach Forrest Gregg gave Sipe the quarterback job and traded Mike Phipps to Chicago, he received a fourth-round draft choice that turned out to be Mickey Sims, a 6'5", 282-pound defensive tackle from South Carolina State. Needing a replacement for Tackle All-Pro Jerry Sherk, who missed Cleveland's first four games with a knee injury, Gregg tried Sims, and the rookie performed better than Gregg could have dreamed. Gregg also has received unexpected help from Running Back Cleo Miller, Tight End Gary Parris and rookie Cornerback Oliver Davis, not to mention Punter Greg Coleman. No. 2 draft choice Tom Skladany of Ohio State was expected to handle Cleveland's punting chores, but he never came to terms with the Browns. Coleman, a 1976 draft choice who was cut, has averaged 38.3 yards per punt and leads the NFL in kicking the ball out of bounds inside the 20-yard line.
Gregg, the former Green Bay tackle, has been asked "one million times" if he is another Vince Lombardi. His answer: "There will never be another Vince Lombardi, and I don't try to be him. I try to be myself because players can spot a phony 10 miles off."
Says Pruitt, "Because of Forrest's leadership, we are where we are. He never lets us relax even when we win. With Forrest, you've got to play a good football game, win or lose. One of his favorite sayings is, 'What have you done lately?'—not 'What have you done?' "
Unfortunately for Gregg, what the Browns did last Sunday was turn the AFC Central into a four-team battle.