CINCINNATI -- The Cleveland Browns entered the Battle of Ohio opener in a difficult position because of off-field drama and injuries, but the Cincinnati Bengals made it easy for them to change the narrative from their recent struggles.
An interception returned for a touchdown, a third-down drop and a fumble killed good drives for Cincinnati in the first half, and a third turnover helped the Browns put the game away in the third quarter while the Bengals defense continued its downward spiral.
Cleveland, which had just four takeaways through the first eight games, overcame distractions this week and bounced back from a bad stretch of three losses in four games to beat the Bengals 41-16 in front of 65,451 fans Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
It was the Browns’ first AFC North win after opening division play with a loss to Pittsburgh last week. The Bengals (5-4) were hoping to complete a sweep of their first round of division games after beating the Steelers and Ravens on the road earlier this season, and they now go into a bye week on a two-game slide.
“That was an important game for us,” Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield said in his postgame press conference. “Any division game is important. We were sitting at 4-4. We needed that win. Our whole locker room needed that win.”
Much of the attention on the Browns (5-4) throughout the week was on Odell Beckham Jr.’s dad posting a video montage of all the times his son was open and not thrown to or times Mayfield missed him on targets. The Browns excused Beckham from practices and announced Friday they are releasing him.
On Sunday, the Browns’ passing game was hardly at the forefront, outside of a 60-yard touchdown pass to Donovan Peoples-Jones. Nick Chubb rushed for 137 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries against a Bengals defense that has taken major steps backward the last two weeks, and the Browns defense that has done well all season but lacked turnovers stepped up to shut the Bengals down.
The game was well on its way to being decided in the first half, as the Browns took a 24-10 lead into the locker room, but the dagger came in the third quarter when Chubb ran for a 70-yard touchdown and Burrow followed with his second pick of the day on the next drive, leading to a Cleveland field goal for a 24-point lead.
“We hurt ourselves today,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “Two explosive plays there, one the first half, one in the second half for touchdowns, gave them 14. And when your playing a team that is built the way they are with the running game and you give them a big lead two-score lead, three-score lead, that’s where they’re going to be at their best, and so disappointing that that’s the outcome today. We get a chance, we’re 5-4 at the bye. These guys are gonna regroup, you’re gonna see a good football team after this bye. We’ve got a lot of season left in front of us, and we just told our guys we’re gonna learn from this. We’re gonna move on and we’re gonna be a team to be reckoned with in November, December.”
Cincinnati’s offense was moving the ball well in the first half, despite what the scoreboard showed.
After a solid start on the opening drive, Joe Burrow attempted a pass to Ja’Marr Chase in tight coverage, and Denzel Ward jumped in front to pick it off and returned it 99 yards for a touchdown.
Burrow responded by leading the offense right back down to the red zone, and Joe Mixon punched it in on an 11-yard run to cap a nine-play drive and tie the game with Evan McPherson’s kick. However, the Browns marched right back down the field with the help of two big pickups by Chubb and regained the lead, 14-7, on Chubb’s 1-yard run with 14:45 left in the second quarter.
The Bengals crossed midfield on their next drive, but an open Samaje Perine dropped a would-be conversion on third down and Tyler Boyd got tangled up as Burrow’s fourth-and-3 deep pass fell incomplete. Cleveland immediately took advantage to keep the momentum, as Peoples-Jones beat cornerback Eli Apple on a deep route to haul in a 60-yard pass from Mayfield the next play to extend the lead to 21-7 with 10:10 left in the half.
Cincinnati couldn’t stop the bleeding after that. Chase fumbled the ball away at the end of a five-yard reception, and Browns cornerback A.J. Green recovered at the Bengals 30-yard line. This time, the defense held up to limit the damage to a 28-yard field goal by Chase McLaughlin, making it a 17-point game.
“I think we piled up a lot of yards in that first half,” Burrow said. “We were playing well, we were in rhythm, but I turned it over twice, we had the fumble, and in this league you can’t overcome those kind of turnovers.”
The Bengals were helped into the red zone by an unnecessary roughness call on Jordan Elliot after he threw a punch in a scuffle that erupted when Jadeveon Clowney made an uncalled late hit on Burrow. However, the most they could get out of it was three points, as McPherson made a 27-yard field goal with two seconds left before halftime.
Burrow had trouble in the second half as the Browns continued to apply pressure with one of the best pass rushes in the league, but his receivers also didn’t help with two drops in the end zone. He was sacked five times, including three times by cornerback Troy Hill, and was hit an additional 12 times. Myles Garrett had 1.5 sacks, plus another one negated by a penalty.
Chase’s dropped pass in the end zone at the end of the third quarter didn’t prove as costly as other Bengals mistakes. Mixon finished that drive with his second touchdown of the day to make it 34-16 with 13:51 left and the two-point conversion failing, but the Browns finished the game with a David Njoku touchdown. Brandon Allen came in for the final four-plus minutes to finish the game for Burrow.
Burrow threw for 282 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions. Mixon had 64 yards on 13 carries, most of that coming in the first half. Mayfield finished with 218 yards passing and two touchdowns with no interceptions and was sacked twice.
“We know we got a great locker room, we have a great team,” defensive end Sam Hubbard said. “I think it just comes down to putting it all together and not getting complacent. We have some time to regroup here with the bye week, look at ourselves and see what team we were really made of these last weeks.”