The Browns promised they'd play with pride and finish strong in their regular season finale, and they delivered on it Sunday with a division win to close out the year.
Cleveland snapped a three-game losing streak by jumping on the Bengals early and playing enough defense down the stretch to end the season on a high note with a 21-16 victory.
"The guys fought like crazy, played hard and came away with a win, which is what we set out to do so obviously that feeling in the locker room is what this is about," Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said. "I thought the guys really fought for each other and did a nice job with that."
The Browns finish the 2021 season with a record of 8-9, giving them their most wins in back-to-back seasons (19) since 1988-89. The AFC North champion Bengals, who rested a number of key players on both sides of the ball, wrap up their regular season at 10-7 and will host a playoff game next week in Cincinnati.
Cleveland has won four straight games over the Bengals and swept Cincinnati in three of the past four seasons.
"It is all about having something to play for, and I think there was something to play for and multiple thing to play for today," Stefanski said. "I think the guys understood that. To see them fight for each other and with each other one last time, I think that tells you a lot about our guys."
Case Keenum, making his second start of the season, came out hot in the first half and got the Browns on the board near the end of the first quarter with the team's longest touchdown pass since Week 9. He finished 17-of-24 for 176 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
Check out photos of the Browns against the Bengals in Week 18
D'Ernest Johnson, who spent most of the week on the reserve/COVID-19 list, received extensive action in his final game of the best season of his career and led all rushers with 123 yards on 25 carries. Nick Chubb played sparingly and added 58 yards to finish with 1,259 on the season.
"It was tough because I wanted to go out there and spend this last week with the guys at practice and hang out with all of those guys in practice," Johnson said. "I was at home watching film, studying and doing little things on the side just to get me ready and prepare for today. We just went out there and got a W."
Jarvis Landry paced the Browns' receivers with six catches for 75 yards and a touchdown. Rookie Demetric Felton hauled in a 10-yard touchdown pass with 7:14 to play to all but seal the Browns' sixth win of the season at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Jadeveon Clowney picked up two sacks, giving him four in the last two games and nine on the season. Myles Garrett added one to his franchise-record total, giving him 16 on the year. The vaunted duo combined for 25 sacks on the season.
"We have become real good guys and close to each other because we play together. I pick his brain, and he picks mine. We feed off each other out there," Clowney said. "It is a good thing to have someone on the other end that you do not worry about. You are just like, 'Hey, I will meet you there [at the quarterback]."
Cleveland's defense shutout the Bengals offense in the first half and kept it out of the end zone until 2:26 to play, when Cincinnati sliced into the Browns' 11-point lead with a Chris Evans 4-yard touchdown. The Browns recovered the ensuing onsides kick and never gave it back.
"Winning is always better than the other," Keenum said. "The food tastes better. The music sounds better like I have talked to you guys about. Anytime you end the season on a win, it feels really, really good."
The Browns weathered a slow start before rattling off back-to-back touchdowns to take a lead they wouldn't relinquish.
Landry caught his second touchdown of the season (fourth overall) when he hauled in a 26-yarder with 56 seconds left in the first quarter to stake the Browns to the lead. Johnson carried the load on the following drive and plowed into the end zone on a 4-yard touchdown, his third of the season.
The end of the half wasn't as pretty, as the Browns turned it over twice and saw one of them returned for a touchdown.
The Bengals got their first points when Wyatt Ray strip-sacked Keenum and Trayveon Williams scooped it up for a 29-yard touchdown return. On the ensuing drive, the Browns drove all the way to Cincinnati's 11-yard line with 9 seconds to play but came away with nothing after Keenum was intercepted in the end zone by Mike Hilton.
On this day, those mistakes weren't enough to keep the Browns from ending their season on a bit of a high note.
"I think a lot of guys got some great opportunities tonight," Keenum said. "I think a lot of people touched the ball. This cat (Johnson) ran the rock tonight. That is always fun. Good momentum going into the offseason."