Yes, those were the Browns
Where in the world did that come from?
What the Browns did to the Cincinnati Bengals in front of their home fans and a national television audience Thursday night almost defies description.
In what was easily the club’s best all-around performance in who knows how long, the Browns thoroughly dismantled a pretty good Bengals team, 24-3, and dislodged them from first place in the AFC North.
The victory moved the Browns into a first-place tie with Pittsburgh for the division lead. The tie will be broken Sunday when the Steelers visit the New York Jets.
It was a peerless performance by the Browns that bordered on near perfection from the opening kickoff to the final gun as the Browns blasted a couple of streaks to smithereens.
It was their first road victory in the division since knocking off Cincinnati, 20-13, on Sept. 28, 2008. That’s 17 games ago. The crushing loss also shattered the Bengals’ unbeaten streak at home at 14 games.
The Browns, winners of three straight and five of their last six games, won this one in a manner that can best be described dominating. The running game made a triumphant return. Brian Hoyer was his usual efficient self. And the defense was, well, special.
Four turnovers (three interceptions and a fumble recovery) blunted everything the Bengals tried. The Cleveland defense took opportunity to a whole new level.
The Bengals were never in the game after quarterback Andy Dalton threw the first of his three interceptions right into the hands of Cleveland linebacker Craig Robertson on the game’s fifth play.
Five running plays later, Ben Tate scored the first of the club’s three rushing touchdowns. Isaiah Crowell scored his fifth of the season early in the second quarter, culminating an eight-play, 59-yard drive.
And Terrance West, running hard and smart all evening, made it three for the infantry with a 1-yard plunge late in the third quarter. Considering how well the defense was playing, it served merely as frosting on the cake.
It seemed the harder Dalton and his offense tried, the worse it got. Nothing went right. But it did for the Browns. That’s because they made their own breaks.
Even when Jim Leonhard fumbled away a Kevin Huber punt on the Bengals’ second series of the game, their only mistake of the evening, the Browns’ transition defense ramped up and stopped the Cincinnati offense again. And when Buster Skrine was flagged for pass interference on a fourth-and-10 at the Cleveland 32 on the same series, the transition defense found another gear.
It took the Bengals 13 plays, a fumble recovery on a punt and a pass interference to put up the only points they would score. Two gifts and all they did with them was score three points.
That right then and there should have told Browns Nation this one was going to be different and extremely enjoyable.
But Browns fans are so conditioned to expect something negative to spoil the fun, it is understandable if they had trouble figuring out just why the Bengals really never put up a fight and waited for a turnaround that never came.
That’s because the Browns arrived ready to play. They arrived with attitude and a nastiness that lasted the entire game. They basically bullied the Bengals all evening. Not once did the home team retaliate. It was an unfair fight.
On offense, the line fired out all evening, grinding relentlessly. The ground game, which averaged just 52 yards in three dismal performances against Jacksonville, Oakland and Tampa Bay, erupted for 170 yards as West (94 yards), Tate and Crowell pounded away.
It ran smoothly, almost effortlessly, as just about everything seemed to work. They really did not stop themselves with any critical errors, controlling the ball for nearly 36 minutes.
Hoyer was a workmanlike 15-of-23 for 198 yards and came up with big plays when he needed them. They added up to a season-best 7-of-16 on third down. His play fakes were borderline exquisite due to the effectiveness of the run game.
The defense, which welcomed back big Phil Taylor to the middle of the line, appears to have a much firmer grasp lately of the Mike Pettine scheme. It limited the Bengals to just 165 yards in 14 series. Their deepest penetration was the Cleveland 19 following Skrine’s PI in the first quarter. He atoned later with a pair of picks.
Taylor had only three tackles, but was a disruptive force up the middle, teaming with Paul Kruger and Desmond Bryant (two sacks) to put enough pressure on Dalton to make him throw before he wanted to, missing badly most of the game.
The longest Cincinnati drive of the evening lasted eight plays, covered 46 yards and ended with Skrine’s first interception. The next Cincinnati possession produced Skrine’s second theft four plays later.
Dalton was just 10-of-33 for an embarrassing 86 yards and three picks. The Bengals, who had only 11 first downs, converted just three third downs in 17 attempts.
A microcosm of just how just about everything went in the Browns’ favor was what took place during the second series of the second half.
They had a third down and a foot at the Cincinnati 31 after the Bengals successfully challenged a spot by the officials that originally gave them a first down. They dropped back five more yards when right guard John Greco was flagged for a false start.
Typical Cleveland mistake at the wrong time, moaned most Browns fans. And when Hoyer failed to connect with Taylor Gabriel on the next play, the moaning grew louder. But wait, a flag. What now?
Referee Jeff Triplette signaled holding before slowly indicating Cincinnati’s George Iloka was the culprit. A 6-4 safety mugging a 5-7 receiver.
On the very next play, Crowell appeared to fumble the ball after a one-yard pickup and the Bengals recovered. A review (all turnovers are reviewed) reversed the call. Another bullet dodged. That’s two.
A 28-yard strike to tight end Gary Barnidge, a Tate two-yard run and a failed Hoyer sneak from the 1 brought up a third and goal. West dived over the line, thrust out the ball and it appeared to cross the plane of the goal.
The ball popped out and rolled to the back of the end zone and another flag flew. Browns Nation held its breath. After a moment, Triplette finally indicated the Bengals were offside, but the Browns declined the penalty because West had, indeed, scored.
Whenever the Browns need a turnover, they got one. Like when free safety Tashaun Gipson (who later dropped an interception right in his chest) popped the ball free from rookie Bengals running back Jeremy Hill early in the second quarter and it floated right into the hands of a waiting Joe Haden.
Haden also had a spectacular game, as did the entire secondary, which contested passes hard. Haden shut down A. J. Green with just three catches for 23 yards.
Whenever they needed a big play on offense to sustain a drive, they got one from Hoyer, whose mid-range accuracy was solid.
It was a performance that had to make NFL Nation sit up and take notice. It also makes one wonder just where this team was the last three weeks. How did these guys lose to the Jacksonville Jaguars and look very ordinary against Oakland and Tampa Bay?
It was an entirely different team that actually looked like a contender. It appeared to love the national TV stage. In fact, it seemed to relish the spotlight. No stage fright there.
Working on very little rest because of the short turnaround definitely brought out the best in this team at least for one night. They now have 10 days to get ready for Houston back home.
After what we saw in Cincinnati, it is not unreasonable to expect a similar performance against the Texans. We now know the Browns are capable of it.