AP Sports Writer
CINCINNATI — The unbeaten Bengals know how to torment and taunt Johnny Football.
Johnny Manziel had a horrid NFL debut last season in Cleveland. The Bengals chased him around the field, knocked him around and did his signature “money-rubbing” gesture to rub it in during a 30-0 win.
All this after Bengals coach Marvin Lewis called Manziel “a midget” on a radio show.
With Josh McCown sidelined by a rib injury, Manziel gets a chance to show he’s improved Thursday night against a Bengals team that’s even better than the last time they met. Cincinnati (7-0) is off to the best start in franchise history and in control of the AFC North.
The Browns (2-6) have lost five of six and will be missing two defensive backs — including cornerback Joe Haden — to concussions. Manziel will have to play much better than the last time in order to prevent it from quickly becoming a blowout.
“He’s a different player,” coach Mike Pettine said. “I just think we’ve all seen it from going back to the amount of work in the spring to training camp.
“When the rush became live, I think that’s where you saw that he made his biggest improvement with his demeanor in the pocket. That it wasn’t as frenetic, that his feet were calm.”
Manziel? The Bengals have handled better. They’ve already beaten Joe Flacco and the Ravens in Baltimore, and last week knocked off Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers in Pittsburgh to remain one of four unbeaten teams.
They’re enjoying their stay among the NFL’s elite and want to keep it going.
“This game is not a game we’re looking over and saying: ‘Oh, it’s just the Browns,’” defensive tackle Domata Peko said. “We’ve got to make sure we’re on top of our stuff.”
Some things to watch on Thursday night at Paul Brown Stadium:
DALTON’S CHANCE: Andy Dalton had one of his worst games last season in the loss at Paul Brown Stadium, completing only 10 of 33 passes for 86 yards with three interceptions and a passer rating of 2.0. He’s been one of the NFL’s leading passers this season, and gets a chance to show how much he’s grown in the rematch.
“I think it was a one-time thing,” Dalton said. “You can’t let anything like that creep into your head because we are in a much better place than we were last year.”
BENGALS’ START: The seven straight wins match the Bengals’ record for a season. They won the last seven during the 1970 season, and their opener the next year for an eight-game streak that is the club record. Cincinnati is trying to become the 33rd team in NFL history and the 22nd in the Super Bowl era to open 8-0. The last to do it: the 2013 Chiefs.
“We’re a different team with a different mentality,” running back Giovani Bernard said. “That’s a huge part of why we’ve been successful.”
BRIGHT LIGHTS: The loss to the Browns in that Thursday night game last year still stings. It left the Bengals 5-5 all-time on Thursday nights and added to the perception they tend to play their worst games on the biggest stages — night games and playoffs.
“A lot of things happened to us last year that we feed off of,” cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said. “They kicked our butts. They pretty much embarrassed us. This is an opportunity for us to go out and show the world who we are. It’s time to show them we’re a new team.”
BROWNS CONCUSSIONS: Cleveland will be without four starters because of concussions. Haden, who has shut down Bengals star wideout A.J. Green, sustained his second head injury in three weeks last Sunday against Arizona. Safety Donte Whitner was hurt on the play after Haden went down. Receiver Brian Hartline, who caught his first two TD passes this season, reported symptoms following Cleveland’s loss to Arizona. Receiver Andrew Hawkins remains in the NFL’s concussion protocol for the second straight week.
NO GO, JOE: If things weren’t stormy enough for the Browns, the team engaged in trade talks this week involving eight-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas, the foundation and face of Cleveland’s franchise. General manager Ray Farmer said the team didn’t solicit deals, but he listened to offers from other teams. Denver was reportedly interested in Thomas, who has started all 136 career games and never missed a snap — 8,443 and counting — with Cleveland.
“Stuff like that happens all the time in pro sports, and sometimes it gets reported on and sometimes it doesn’t,” Thomas said.
AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.