The Browns lost, 23-10, to the Bengals on Sunday at Paycor Stadium, dropping their record to 5-8.
Here are three takeaways from the game:
1. Watson shows improvement
Despite the loss, the Browns still departed Cincinnati with one big silver-lining — QB Deshaun Watson looked much better than he did a week ago than his debut in Houston.
Watson completed 26 of 42 pass attempts for 276 yards, one touchdown and one interception and delivered several throws that looked similar to the ones he was able to complete before his 700-day gap between NFL starts. He also rushed six times for 33 yards. His footwork and throwing motions were much improved compared to last week, when several of his passes were off-target and prevented the offense from finding a rhythm.
The Browns will still need Watson to do much more to consistently compete with a team as talented as the Bengals, but it's a step in the right direction that the Browns needed to see.
"Most definitely," Watson said when asked if he felt more comfortable. "Just keep letting the game come to me. That's going to continue to speed up the process and the game plan. Each week, it's going to get a little bit better and a little bit better."
Watson found his first passing touchdown with the Browns in the third quarter with a 13-yard connection to David Njoku, whose reception was the third of three consecutive completions from Watson and capped arguably the best-looking offensive sequence in the game. Watson hit Njoku for a 6-yard completion on fourth down to keep the drive alive, then found him again for 14 yards to set up the touchdown.
But on the next offense series, Watson threw his first interception with the Browns. He was looking deep for Donovan Peoples-Jones but didn't anticipate the coverage from Bengals S Jessie Bates III, who was roaming in the deep part of the field and raced over in time to cut the pass off.
"I was late," Watson said. "We had a post going, and the backside safety, Bates, cut it a little bit … I can't do that. I probably should've just taken the checkdown. I felt like I could make that throw, and I have to make that throw."
Those are part of the growing pains the Browns expected to see from Watson, who still gave the Browns a chance to come back within one possession on the next drive when Cleveland reached Cincinnati's 6-yard line but faced a crucial fourth down with 5:29 left.
Watson attempted a fade pass to Peoples-Jones on the play and appeared to place the ball in a favorable position for him, but he was unable to hang onto it. Watson still took onus on the incompletion and said those plays will become successful in the future when he learns more about his receivers preferences on certain plays.
"I told him (after), 'We're going to make that play,'" Watson said. "'I'm going to give you a better ball and another opportunity.' This is something we can watch on the tape and say, 'Hey, in these certain situations and this down and distance leading to the goal, I can put the ball placement in a different area so you can get a better opportunity.'"
All told, Watson still looked a step closer toward rediscovering the Pro Bowl level he displayed his first four seasons in the league.
"(He had) some really good moments," head coach Kevin Stefanski said. "I know there are some plays he wants back, but I thought there were some good moments."
Check out photos of the Browns against the Bengals in Week 14
2. First-half penalties created big hole
The Browns fell behind for the first time in the second quarter due to one painful sequence that featured four penalties on a single drive.
The first penalty was a defensive holding call on CB M.J. Emerson that gave the Bengals a first down. The second was a roughing the kicker call on LB Tony Fields when the Bengals were punting. DE Isaiah Thomas took an illegal use of hands penalty two plays later, giving the Bengals another first down, and CB Denzel Ward was flagged for defensive pass interference on the next play, giving the Bengals another 33 yards.
Four plays later, the Bengals were in the end zone.
"(The penalties) all kind of came on one drive," Stefanski said. "I have to look at all of them, and, obviously, you want guys to play hard and with clean technique, and there are certain times that maybe it's not the strongest call, those types of things, but ultimately they really cost us today."
Those four penalties accounted for 58 of the 98 yards the Browns lost from nine total penalties. The penalty yardage was the most the Browns have had in a game this season, and 83 of them (from seven penalties) were added in the first half.
3. No giving up despite playoff odds
The Browns' road to the playoffs became significantly murkier with the loss. A four-game winning streak to end the season and a heavy amount of help from other teams around the AFC is now likely their only path to the postseason.
But Myles Garrett said the Browns aren't turning the page on the season. He admitted that it's hard knowing the playoff chances are even more slim, but he believes the Browns can still take gratitude in a strong finish — which would provide plenty of hope for next season — and the possibility of playing spoiler to other playoff-hopeful teams. Those teams include the Ravens (9-4) next week when the Browns return to Cleveland, the Saints (4-9) the week after and the Commanders (7-5-1) in Week 17.
"I don't know what our chances are," Garrett said. "I don't know what the percentage is. I just know that next week, we have to go punch somebody in the mouth, and if our chances are zero, we have to knock out somebody else's chances. I'm not giving up, and this team's not giving up no matter where we stand. It's all about pride and it's all about desire."