Cincinnati got its revenge on the Browns in a big way at the worst possible time.
The Bengals quieted a raucous FirstEnergy Stadium crowd with a clock-draining opening drive and beat the Browns in a fashion similar to what Cleveland did to them one month ago at Paul Brown Stadium. The 30-0 loss was the Browns' third in a row and severely damages the team's hopes of returning to the AFC playoffs.
"It's frustrating when you get beat soundly in all three phases," coach Mike Pettine said. "I talked to the guys about there's an 'it' factor you have to have when you go out and play, an edge to you, whether it's the focus, the intensity. We didn't have it today and that's frustrating because you only get so many opportunities to play."
Rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel labored in the first start of his career, and he didn't get much help. The Browns offense gained just 49 yards by the 2:35 mark of the third quarter and finished with 107. Manziel completed 10-of-18 passes for 80 yards and two interceptions to go along with 13 rushing yards. He was sacked three times by a Bengals defense that had 15 on the season coming into Sunday's game.
Manziel's best throw came late in the third quarter, when he connected with Josh Gordon on third-and-long with a 32-yard pass. The drive ended a few plays later after a Carlos Dunlap sack pushed the Browns way behind the chains.
It was an all too common theme on a day where Manziel "looked like a rookie, played like a rookie," Pettine said.
"I felt like it was a fail on my part for the position," Manziel said. "Obviously everybody's extremely disappointed. We wanted to win that game. Nobody wants to win in there more than I do. It's tough to come out there and lay an egg like that. I put a lot of that on me."
The Bengals dominated every facet of the first half on their way to a 20-0 lead and sat on the advantage by controlling the clock in the second.
Rookie running back Jeremy Hill led the Bengals' ground-heavy attack, piling up 103 of his 148 yards and two touchdowns during the first 30 minutes. His first score capped a 14-play, 7:07 game-opening drive and his second put Cincinnati ahead, 17-0, less than 2 minutes into the second quarter.
The Bengals finished with a season-high 244 rushing yards, as Giovani Bernard added 79 and reserve Rex Burkhead capped a 14-play, 86-yard, 8:44 drive with a 10-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter to give the Bengals their final score. Cincinnati finished with a massive time of possession advantage, 38:52-21:08.
In the Browns' win at Cincinnati last month, they outrushed the Bengals, 170-86, and controlled the clock, 35:49-24:11.
"I could notice in-game our pad level wasn't good, we didn't tackle well," Pettine said. "When we've had good defensive performances, we've tackled well and we didn't have that today."
Though the Browns' secondary was without star cornerback Joe Haden for most of the half because of a shoulder injury, the Cleveland pass defense held its own and mostly limited Dalton, who had 66 first-half yards. Craig Robertson's interception midway through the second quarter prevented Cincinnati from padding its lead.
The Browns' offense managed just four first downs in the first half with two coming as the result of a Bengals penalty. Cleveland gained 62 yards and turned it over twice in the second quarter, as Manziel's first interception set up a Mike Nugent field goal and his second was nabbed by Adam "Pacman" Jones in the end zone to stymie the Browns' most promising drive of the half.
"You can't throw the second one whether you're playing in a Pop Warner league or you're 6 years old playing in the driveway, you can't throw that ball," Manziel said. "That's 100 percent on me."
The game was also costly to the Browns from an injury standpoint, as Haden and rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert (head) did not play during the second half and kickoff returner Marlon Moore was lost early to a knee injury.
Pettine said there will be a "bunch of MRIs" on Monday but was unable to provide any updates on the players' status.
The Browns hit the road next week when they face the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium. The Browns are at 7-7 while the rest of the AFC North's teams have nine wins.
"Guys are still playing hard and you can't take that away from us," offensive lineman John Greco said. "It is easy to say that when you are not getting results, but guys are still fighting on every play. Nobody is giving up, and we have to do that these next two weeks."