Browns 24, Bengals 3: Browns bash Bengals, gain tie for first place

Staff Writer
Akron Beacon Journal

CINCINNATI: The Browns passed a daunting test on the national stage Thursday night and notified the rest of the NFL they should be considered legitimate playoff contenders.

With a stellar defensive performance and a revived rushing attack, the Browns throttled the Cincinnati Bengals 24-3 in a crucial AFC North showdown.

“I feel like we made a big statement that we can play with anybody in the league,” rookie running back Isaiah Crowell said. “We were hungry for it, and we’re going to get what’s ours.”

The Browns (6-3) moved into a tie with the Pittsburgh Steelers for first place in the division. It’s the first time the Browns have been atop the divisional standings this late in a season since 2007, when they went 10-6 but fell short of securing a playoff berth. The Steelers (6-3) will visit the New York Jets (1-8) on Sunday with a chance to move a half-game ahead of the Browns.

“This is definitely rare air,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “But I think this team and this coaching staff and the players we have, they’re ready for this. I’m so glad to be a part of it.”

Some pundits tried to poke holes in the Browns’ record as they entered their prime-time showdown against the Bengals (5-3-1), who were 13-0-1 in their previous 14 home games. But the Browns weren’t overwhelmed by their most important game since they traveled to Cincinnati with a 4-5 record last season, only to be thrashed 41-20 on Nov. 17.

“We’re not the old Cleveland Browns,” said strong safety Donte Whitner, who fired up his teammates with an inspirational speech Thursday morning at the team hotel. “We understand everybody wants to put that label on us, but we work too hard and have too much character and talent on this football team to believe what outside people think of us.”

The Browns proved it by winning their first AFC North road game since Sept. 28, 2008, snapping a 17-game skid, the longest drought of that nature by any team since the 1970 NFL merger, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

“It was a huge confidence boost for our guys,” Browns coach Mike Pettine said. “Just look at the streaks we ended.

“We kind of took an ‘it’s an us against the world’ mentality. Nobody really thought we could come down here and do this.”

The defense had three interceptions to go along with a fumble recovery and now has 12 takeaways in four games. The team also rushed for 170 yards on 52 carries (3.3 average) and had three running backs — Crowell, Ben Tate and rookie Terrance West — score a touchdown in the same game for the first time since 1994.

Quarterback Brian Hoyer also rose to the occasion for the Browns and outperformed counterpart Andy Dalton in windy conditions. Hoyer completed 15-of-23 passes for 198 yards with no interceptions. He finished with a passer rating of 92.3 and improved to 9-3 as a starter for the Browns, who are 1-12 in games the North Olmsted native hasn’t started since he joined the team last year. With the Browns ahead 24-3, “Bri-an Ho-yer” chants could be heard from fans at Paul Brown Stadium.

“That’s great to see our fans come down and support us here, and we gave them something to cheer about,” Hoyer said. “So it’s definitely something special, and I’ll remember that for a long time.”

According to STATS, the last time the Browns and Bengals met in Week 10 or later with first place on the line was in 1986. The Browns won that game 34-3 in Cincinnati and were nearly as dominant during the most recent Battle of Ohio.

“We just knew what was at stake,” Haden said. “And we didn’t want to be talked about like, ‘Oh, we go down and lay an egg on a big game.’ So everybody wanted to step up and make plays.

“We were ready for the occasion. Everybody was locked in. You could tell from the beginning of the game, during warm-ups, just everybody was hyped and ready to play.”

As a result, the Browns have their best record through nine games since they started 7-2 in 1994. Winners of five of their past six games and three in a row, they weren’t fazed by a rare appearance on national TV.

“Bright lights just give us an opportunity to shine,” inside linebacker Karlos Dansby said. “That’s how we look at it. We’re not nervous about no lights.”

During the Bengals’ first possession of the second half, Dalton threw an ill-advised pass right to free safety Tashaun Gipson, who leads the NFL with six interceptions this season. However, Gipson uncharacteristically dropped the ball near the Browns’ 41-yard line with 11:36 left in the third quarter.

The defense, though, didn’t let the squandered opportunity deter it. Defensive end Desmond Bryant responded by sacking Dalton for losses of five and nine yards on consecutive plays, forcing the Bengals to punt.

The Browns gained possession at their 37 and manufactured a 10-play, 63-yard touchdown drive. After right guard John Greco was penalized for a false start on third-and-1 from the Bengals’ 31, the drive stayed alive because safety George Iloka held undrafted rookie wide receiver Taylor Gabriel as Hoyer threw to him over the middle on third-and-6.

Five plays later, West jumped over a pile on third-and-goal from the 1 and extended the ball over the goal line before he lost it. Officials ruled the play a 1-yard touchdown, which a replay review confirmed, and the Browns went ahead 24-3 with 4:46 left in the third quarter. West led the team with 26 carries for 94 yards.

Cornerback Buster Skrine spoiled any hope the Bengals had of mounting a comeback by intercepting two passes from Dalton in the fourth quarter. Dalton has thrown eight interceptions in five games. He completed 10-of-33 passes for just 86 yards and finished with a passer rating of 2.0.

The defense’s superb effort helped the Browns secure their largest margin of victory on the road since they defeated the Los Angeles Rams 42-14 on Dec. 26, 1993.

Who knew they would thrive with such a quick turnaround? They had beaten the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 22-17 just four days earlier.

“I compliment the staff and the players on how we handled the short week,” Pettine said. “It was a very different schedule, practicing at night, walking through and not doing any live reps with limited game-plan stuff. It was just a matter of going out and executing, and our guys responded and went out and played our best game of the year.”

The Browns grabbed the momentum out of the gate and built a 17-3 halftime lead.

On second-and-10 from the Bengals’ 30, inside linebacker Craig Robertson intercepted a short pass Dalton intended for tight end Jermaine Gresham at the 33 and returned it 15 yards to the 18.

“I was just trying to make a play for our defense,” Robertson said. “It just so happened everything else unfolded after that. Whatever it takes to jump-start our team, I’m willing to do whether it’s on special teams, defense or whatever. We made a lot of plays on defense today. That helps our offense so much put points on the board and demoralize a defense.”

The offense ran five times after Robertson’s pick. West started and gained 14 yards on four carries. Then Tate finished the drive by bolting ahead for a 4-yard touchdown, giving the Browns a 7-0 advantage with 10:40 left in the first quarter.

“It’s crazy because the headset was out,” Hoyer said. “So I had to run over [to the sideline] and get the play calls, so it was a little hectic. But to fight through that and finish with a touchdown and really set the tone for the game was huge.”

Added Pettine: “It was critical in the fact that we were able to pound it in without attempting a pass. It was a statement. The biggest part there was converting it into a touchdown to jump out and take advantage of that turnover. I thought that got them back on their heels a little bit.”

On the next series, outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard and defensive end Phil Taylor, who played for the first time since undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery Oct. 8, combined to bring down rookie running back Jeremy Hill for a loss of 2 yards on third-and-2 from the Bengals’ 38. But Browns backup safety Jim Leonhard fumbled while returning the ensuing punt. Wide receiver James Wright knocked the ball loose, and safety Shawn Williams recovered the ball at the Browns’ 32 with 7:40 left in the first quarter.

Four plays later, the Bengals went for it on fourth-and-10 from the Browns’ 32. Dalton’s pass over the middle intended for wide receiver Mohamed Sanu fell incomplete, but Skrine drew a pass interference penalty for grabbing one of Sanu’s arms. The Bengals continued their possession but ultimately settled for Mike Nugent’s 43-yard field goal, trimming their deficit to 7-3 with 6:18 left in the first quarter, after Dalton was penalized for throwing a forward pass beyond the line of scrimmage on third-and-15 from the 24.

Then the Browns wasted a 62-yard kickoff return by wide receiver Marlon Moore. He advanced to the Bengals’ 41, but Robertson drew a penalty for holding running back Rex Burkhead during the return. As a result, the Browns started the drive at their 12. The drive stalled after one first down, and they punted five plays later.

But the Browns defense got a stop during the next series, and Kevin Huber’s subsequent punt traveled just 25 yards before it landed out of bounds. So the Browns took control at their 41 and Crowell, who didn’t play a snap on offense this past Sunday, capped an eight-play, 59-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown run, giving the Browns a 14-3 lead with 12:47 left in the second quarter.

Free safety Tashaun Gipson forced Hill to fumble on first-and-10 from the Bengals’ 47. The ball shot into the air, and Haden caught it at the Browns’ 28 with 12:12 left in the second quarter.

The offense failed to capitalize and went three-and-out. But Sheard tackled running back Cedric Peerman for a 3-yard loss, and rookie nickel cornerback K’Waun Williams broke up a pass intended for Sanu on third-and-5 from the Bengals’ 31 to force a three-and-out.

Then the Browns extended their lead to 17-3 with 3:59 left in the second quarter when Billy Cundiff made a 32-yard field goal to cap 14-play, 63-yard drive. The march stalled on third-and-5 from the Bengals’ 12 when Gabriel, who started because Andrew Hawkins was inactive with knee and thigh injuries, was tackled for a loss of 3 yards on a screen.

The Browns defense sent a message from the start and allowed just 11 first downs. The Bengals converted just 3-of-17 third downs.

Now the entire team must keep the momentum rolling to achieve its mission.

“The meaningful games come at the end of November and in December,” Hoyer said. “That’s something this organization hasn’t had in a long time. I’m used to it from my time in New England. You’ve got to keep pressing on and know that with each game that you win, the more meaningful they become after that. Being first in the division on Nov. 6 doesn’t mean anything. We have to keep pressing on and get to mid-December, end of December and that’s when you put yourself in a good position.”

So even though the Browns like the position they’ve earned, they realize they can’t afford to become satisfied.

“Our goal is going to the playoffs,” Robertson said. “We’ve got to do whatever it takes to get us to the playoffs.”