CINCINNATI -- It was decisive. It was dominating. At times, it was a work of art.
The Cleveland Browns leave Cincinnati with a 24-3 victory over the Bengals, a 6-3 record and a view from atop the AFC North in first place.
The conversations all during the short week of preparation revolved around the Browns' lack of a divisional road win since 2008 and their shortage of players with experience in primetime games. Those storylines ended abruptly and are now being replaced with the P word: playoffs. On the NFL Network, the Browns look like they are ready to contend for their first playoff berth since 2002.
The defense looked like a vintage Mike Pettine coached unit; breaking up passes, plugging running holes, forcing turnovers and most glaringly the Browns' performance made some Bengals fans nearly boo quarterback Andy Dalton off the field, while others headed for the exits in the third quarter. Dalton completed just 10 of 33 for 86 yards with three interceptions and a passer rating of 2.0. Former Browns quarterback Jason Campbell came in late in the fourth quarter.
The offense, given the injury circumstances to Andrew Hawkins and Jordan Cameron, might've been more terrific. With a backup center and undrafted skill players at running back and wide receiver, Brian Hoyer commanded the unit like he was the three-time playoff quarterback, and not Dalton.
Cleveland dictated large chunks of the game where they hiked up and down the field, slowly but surely, lulling the Bengals players to sleep. A second quarter eight-play, 59-yarder was capped off by Isaiah Crowell bowling through the Cincinnati defense for the 2-yard touchdown, putting Cleveland up 14-3.
Tate and West added scores of their own marking the first time since 1994 the Browns have boasted three different running backs with three touchdowns. The trio finished with 169 yards on 51 carries.
Possibly the most imperative part of the win was the rapid turnaround made by the offensive line. Hoyer wasn't sacked and the Browns finished with 170 rushing yards. For three straight weeks Cleveland's offensive line has been under siege from the local media, who questioned players and coaches on recent poor performances. On Thursday, they dictated one of the AFC's most imposing defense lines, and did it with ease.
A national audience was formally introduced to why the Browns have won five of their last six games. Surprise, surprise: Cleveland's two most pivotal players on offense and defense were at it again.
Hoyer – who was 15 of 23 for 198 yards -- played mostly mistake-free football while still raising the talent level of those around him. Safety Tashaun Gipson forced a turnover for the fourth straight game and is solidifying himself as one of the most impactful defensive backs in the AFC – Pro Bowl considerations are on deck.
The authoritative way the Browns beat the Bengals started from the opening possession. Dalton lofted an interception right into the arms of linebacker Craig Robertson. Five plays later, all runs, Ben Tate was dancing in the end zone and Cleveland had a 7-0 lead.
Cincinnati's offense was like a car with a flat tire, bumpily veering off course throughout the entire game. And nearly every Browns defender played a role in creating the havoc.
Desmond Bryant tallied two straight sacks early in the third quarter. Phil Taylor, less than a month removed from knee surgery, played inspired football, helping stifle Cincinnati's red-hot rookie runner Jeremy Hill to 55 yards on 12 carries. Karlos Dansby had eight tackles by halftime and both Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard were relentless – the latter drew multiple holding penalties that hindered the little progress Cincinnati's offense momentarily showed. Buster Skrine added a pair of interceptions, the second one an acrobatic catch which spurned jovial celebrations on the Browns' sideline.
Rookie players got involved in the free-for-all, too. K'Waun Williams and Justin Gilbert got their hands on football's for textbook deflections. If it weren't for a Jim Leonhard fumble in the first quarter and the Bengals field goal that followed, Cleveland might've shutout Cincinnati.
The Bengals join the Pittsburgh Steelers in knowing this: when the Browns are clicking on both offense and defense, they will not only beat you – they can and will dominate you.
Browns players will get four days off to relax. The Houston Texans loom next Sunday Nov. 16 at FirstEnergy Stadium.
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