There are performances to be proud of. Then there's games where you have to dust-off the history books and show this film repeatedly over the years as the standard for excellence.
The Cleveland Browns defensive whipping of the Cincinnati Bengals falls in the latter category. The Bengals were limited to just three points, 165 yards of offense and converted just three of their 17 third downs – equaling out to a dismal 17 percent.
Andy Dalton was at the forefront of the steamrolling. He was held to a 2.0 passer rating, the worst for a Bengals quarterback since 1994. Dalton also became only the fifth quarterback since 1969 to complete less than 30 percent of his attempts, throw for under 100 yards while also throwing three interceptions.
It was a nightmare for Bengals fans. Why was Dalton clearly so uncomfortable the whole night? The Browns have figured themselves out as an entire defense: an aggressive, confident, bark-and-then-bite you unit, who will prey once they smell blood in the water.
It took some time, but the Browns' defense is now a dangerous weapon on full-display. Those inconsistencies we saw in September seem like eons ago.
"We figured out what we are good at," said Buster Skrine who picked off two of Dalton's passes. "People are realizing we are a good team."
Skrine has been a large part of the secondary that's been derailing offensive game plans since the Oct. 12 win against the Steelers. Safety Tashaun Gipson forced another turnover on Thursday , his seventh in nine games. Donte Whitner delivered a passionate speech to the team at the Renaissance Hotel in Cincinnati as the Browns arrived Wednesday evening, and he carried that fire onto the field finishing with four tackles.
But the crown jewel of the night from the secondary was cornerback Joe Haden. Tasked with locking down A.J. Green, Haden effectively handcuffed the Pro Bowler, making him a non-factor in the biggest game of the year for both teams to date. Green left the field Thursday night with his head hung low, targeted 10 times while only hauling in three receptions for 29 yards.
"We kept the pedal down and we never wanted to just feel comfortable," said Haden about the way the Browns played defense. "This is a different Browns team. It's just us playing together."
Coach Mike Pettine and defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil's scheme can reach heights Browns fans have not yet seen if Haden can continue to take away top-shelf receivers – just like cornerback Darrelle Revis famously did for the New York Jets.
"It started with Joe matching up on A.J.," Pettine told reporters after the game. "It was big for us to have Joe tracking him for most of the way and to have the success that he had. I thought our secondary covered as well as they have."
With the secondary humming like an engine on a sports car, it bought more time for the defensive line and pass rushers to create even more chaos in Dalton's face. And they stole his lunch money.
The pressure from the pass rush was constant, and effective.
The effort was spearheaded by Desmond Bryant. Early in the third quarter, when the game was still technically in reach for the Bengals, the Harvard alum, who finished with six tackles, strung together two straight sacks of Dalton – one around the edge and the other on a stunt up the middle.
"Thursday night is a huge thing and a divisional game. As players, we live for moments like this," said an inspired Bryant in the locker room following the win. "Our goal is to make it to the Super Bowl. A 6-3 record is a likely step along the way."
Even better, Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard set the edge in the run game, playing with the right technique. Billy Winn and Phil Taylor were also everywhere, blowing up Cincinnati blocking schemes. Bengals' running back Jeremy Hill was a complete non-factor, carrying the ball 12 times for 55 yards.
The Houston Texans, who are on a bye this week, loom next at FirstEnergy Stadium. You better believe coach Bill O'Brien and newly minted quarterback Ryan Mallet aren't going to enjoy looking at what they see on film from the Cleveland Browns defense.