CINCINNATI — The Browns broke out their biggest plays of the year for one of the biggest moments of the 2021 season.
Cleveland, sitting at .500 as it entered a pivotal stretch at the midpoint of the season, played its most complete game of the season Sunday, making big, highlight-reel plays on both sides of the ball to down the Bengals, 41-16, at Paul Brown Stadium.
"It was a great team win to come down here and get a road victory," Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said. "I thought it was hard-fought. It was never perfect, as they never are, but just how hard the guys played against what I think is a really good football team, a team that I think was playing good ball. So I was proud of those guys for how they performed."
The Browns had touchdowns that stretched 99, 70 and 60 yards, respectively, to control a game in which they barely possessed the ball. Cleveland ran just 46 plays to Cincinnati's 70 and possessed the ball for less than 8 minutes in the first half, but it didn't matter, as the Browns forced three turnovers and thrived off big plays from start to finish to collect their first AFC North win of the season.
"It was an important game for us. Any division game is," QB Baker Mayfield said. "We were sitting at 4-4 and needed that win. Our whole locker room needed that, and they knew that. We played for each other, and any kind of win feels good."
Mayfield was efficient and made the most of his opportunities, finishing 14-of-21 with 218 yards and two touchdowns — good for a quarterback rating of 132.6. He had four passes for 20+ yards, including a 60-yard touchdown strike to Donovan Peoples-Jones in the second quarter.
Nick Chubb came out hot and never cooled off, amassing 60 yards on the Browns' first offensive possession and finishing with 163 (137 rushing, 26 receiving). He picked up 70 of them on a third-quarter touchdown run that stretched Cleveland's lead to 21.
"Nick is a special, special player," Stefanski said. "With that size and power, to be able to run away from people—it's just so rare."
Defensively, CB Denzel Ward got the Browns rolling with his second career pick-six to stymie Cincinnati on its opening drive. S John Johnson III forced a fumble in the second quarter and collected his second interception of the season in the third. All of those turnovers led to Browns points.
The Browns surrendered 141 yards on Cincinnati's first two possessions but tightened up thereafter. Joe Burrow finished 28-of-40 for 282 yards but struggled to connect with his favorite target, Ja'Marr Chase, who finished with six catches for 49 yards. RB Joe Mixon scored twice and finished with 110 yards of offense.
CB Troy Hill, who came into Sunday's game with one sack in his previous 81 games, finished with an improbable three on a big day for Cleveland's secondary. Myles Garrett added 1.5 to give him a league-leading 12 on the season.
"I thought the defense was outstanding ball-searching all day," Stefanski said. "The ball was on the ground, and they were going to get it. The ball was in the air, and they were going to get it. So I thought that was great. We wanted to win the turnover margin down here, and we did."
Leading 24-10 at the half, Chubb broke off his longest run of the season — third-longest of his career — to give the Browns some breathing room they'd ride for the rest of the game. The 70-yard run put Chubb over 100 yards for the 20th time in his four-year career.
Mayfield put an exclamation point on the victory with an 18-yard touchdown pass to TE David Njoku with 4:27 left in the game.
"We have a bunch of good leaders and a good locker room — guys that know the task at hand and what we need to accomplish to win games," Mayfield said. "You saw that come out today. It's pretty simple. We played for each other."
The Browns got a little bit of everything that had been missing in previous weeks in a highlight-filled first half.
Cleveland, which entered Sunday's game with just five takeaways on the season, got two big ones in the first half and capitalized on both to take and extend its advantage.
Ward stepped in front of Chase, picked off Burrow on the Browns' 1-yard line and took off the other way to provide an abrupt end to the Bengals' opening drive. No one caught him, as he darted his way 99 yards for a touchdown to stake the Browns to a 7-0 lead. The 99-yard return was the second-longest in team history, trailing only Brodney Pool's 100-yarder in 2007.
"I knew as soon as I caught it I was gone," Ward said. "There was just one receiver out with me, I was covering Chase. I knew I had the rest of the field to myself. They ended up getting some angles, but my guys did a great job getting the blocks."
Check out photos of the Browns against the Bengals in Week Nine
A.J. Green scooped up a fumble in the second quarter — giving the Browns their second defensive fumble recovery of the season — to set up a Browns field goal that extended the team's lead to 24-7.
The Browns had that lead because in the few moments they had the ball — Cincinnati possessed it for more than 22 minutes in the first half — they were efficient through the air and on the ground.
Chubb racked up 60 of his yards of offense on the Browns' first offensive possession, a nine-play, 75-yard drive that was capped early in the second quarter with his fifth touchdown of the season.
Following a fourth-down stop, the Browns took their biggest shot through the air in weeks and made the Bengals pay. On a play-action fake, Mayfield found Peoples-Jones in stride for a 60-yard touchdown — Cleveland's longest of the season — to take a 21-7 lead with 10:10 to play in the quarter.
"He's one of many that we have that are all about winning. Anything they can do to contribute," Mayfield said. "He had two catches today, but they were huge catches — the third down play to get us up in the red zone, and then the touchdown. He's a great player and will continue to be that for us."
Mayfield was 7-of-8 for 121 yards and a touchdown in the first half, giving him a perfect quarterback rating (158.3) through the first 30 minutes.
The Browns are back on the road next week when they travel to New England to face the Patriots.
"Great win today," Stefanski said, "and we've got to go on the road and do it again next week."