We're breaking down the three biggest storylines from Sunday's 27-19 win over the Bengals.
1. Gashed between the 20s, Browns defense delivers inside red zone
The Browns were due for a day like Sunday.
Twice this season, Cleveland out-gained its opponent but came away the loser because of penalties, turnovers, big plays or a little bit of all of the above. At no point Sunday did the Browns own an advantage in total yards, yet they trailed for just a handful of minutes and led most of the way in a 27-19 victory.
The Bengals punted just twice Sunday and gained 451 yards of offense -- the second-most Cleveland has surrendered all season. Yet it was the Browns who never trailed in the second half and were able to comfortably end the game with a victory formation kneel-down.
This was the opposite of a frustrating performance like last week's against the Steelers, when the defense was mostly stout but surrendered four costly big plays that turned out to be the difference. On this day, the Browns were the ones making the big plays in the big moments to keep an unexpectedly high-powered Cincinnati offense out of the end zone on all but one occasion.
"That's what this game comes down to is points, man," cornerback T.J. Carrie said. "If they can get down there, but they can't score and they've got to kick field goals, you'll definitely have a high success rate of winning that game.
"We do have some things to correct things from stopping them from getting down there, but the main part is we were really, really great in the red zone today and that was the difference in the game."
The Browns were particularly good inside the red zone during the second half, when Cincinnati twice got inside the 5-yard line but came away with a combined three points.
Trailing 21-13 after the Browns opened the second half with a touchdown drive, the Bengals had first-and-goal from Cleveland's 2-yard line after Joe Mixon converted a fourth-down run. One play later, Cincinnati was on its heels after Larry Ogunjobi and Bryan Cox combined on a sack. The next two plays didn't gain any of it back, and the Bengals had to settle for a field goal.
"I just wanted to make a play for the team," Ogunjobi said. "I got penetration and our line collapsed the pocket, which helped drive him back to get the sack."
The Browns were just as tough in a similarly stressful situation early in the fourth quarter, when Cincinnati picked up yards by the bunch before facing a first-and-goal from the Browns' 7. Mixon carried the ball on the next two plays and gained a combined 3 yards. On third-and-goal, Dalton threw incomplete, setting up a pivotal fourth-and-goal from the 4.
A third-down conversion from earlier in the drive, when Dalton ran 6 yards untouched up the middle, was fresh on the Browns' mind as they lined up for the play.
"We've seen some opponents and teams try to do that quarterback sneak. We kind of anticipated it going into that drive," Carrie said. "Once he hit us on the third down, we're like, 'all right, I definitely know if it's a got-to-have-it situation, he's going to do it.'"
He did, the Browns stuffed it and Cincinnati wouldn't get the ball back again until it was well too late.
"We are playing confident football right now," Ogunjobi said. "The guys along the defensive line are really focusing on making their tackles, tackling in space and trying to make plays for us. Of course, there are things that we have to work on when we watch film tomorrow, but it is good to get the win."
2. On a tough day, Mayfield delivers on third down
This was not Baker Mayfield's best day, but it oddly might have been one of his best when it came to third down.
Mayfield completed just 11 passes for 192 yards and threw two interceptions, good for a quarterback rating of 38.9. More than half of those yards (97) came on four big third-and-long throws, including two on a crucial drive late in the game that all but sealed the victory for Cleveland.
"I thought he was sharp," Browns coach Freddie Kitchens said. "Sometimes it just does not go your way. I do not think the breaks kind of went his way today, but he was still hooked up. He knew what to do with the ball and made some good throws. He was just close on a couple of them."
Trailing 13-7 in the second quarter and facing a third-and-19 after a messy start to a possession, Mayfield fired a 20-yard pass over the middle to Jarvis Landry to get the Browns moving. A few plays later in the drive, Mayfield connected with Odell Beckham Jr. for 21 yards on third-and-6 to get the Browns inside the red zone. He put a fitting end to the drive when he scrambled and leaped for a 7-yard touchdown on third-and-goal.
Mayfield completed just one pass in the third quarter but delivered two big throws on third down to extend a lengthy fourth quarter drive that ultimately gave the Browns a two-score advantage.
On a third-and-8 with 4:12 to play, Mayfield moved the chains with a 22-yard pass to Ricky Seals-Jones, the first connection between the two since Week 9. After two running plays left the Browns with a third-and-10, Mayfield found a wide open Landry on a well-designed play that went for 34 yards and put the Browns in field goal range.
"It was a good design we put in this week," Landry said. "We kind of knew it'd be a good play for us. It was one of those ones where Freddie kept it in his back pocket and called it at the right time."
Check out photos of the Browns in action against the Bengals
3. The win is what matters
The style points might have been lacking but the Browns stopped caring about those a long time ago.
Cleveland needed a win, and that's what it got Sunday. The team's playoff hopes live for at least another week after collecting its fourth win in the last five weeks and its fourth straight victory at FirstEnergy Stadium after an 0-3 start to the season.
The win over Cincinnati marked off one long-standing item on the Browns' checklist since joining the AFC North when divisions were realigned in 2002. This is the first time the Browns have collected wins against all three division foes in the same season.
The Browns will take the same 1-0 mindset into next week's game at Arizona. It's what's gotten them to this point after a disappointing 2-6 start to the season.
"It is tricky to balance the singular game focus but also the big picture, but that takes a little bit of maturity," Mayfield said. "I think we are realizing that we did it to ourselves to not have the chances this late in the season for playoff percentages, but keeping that big picture mindset, if we finish the way we need to and carry that momentum, kind of how we finished up last year and having the same guys and keeping stuff similar within the building, it can be important for us."