CINCINNATI: The Browns raced to an early lead, played extremely stingy defense and were still blown out by the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals 41-20 on a windy, rainy Sunday afternoon at Paul Brown Stadium.
Playing in their most meaningful game since 2007, when they finished 10-6 but fell short of a postseason berth, the Browns were convinced the moment wouldn’t prove too big for them. But despite their confidence heading into the 81st edition of the Battle of Ohio, the Browns fell apart while allowing 31 unanswered points in a historic second quarter marred by turnovers and special-teams gaffes.
“It’s really frustrating just knowing that you dominated a team,” Browns nose tackle Phil Taylor said. “[The Bengals] literally couldn’t piss a drop, and you still get blown out. But we’ve just got to finish. We made some mistakes, and it came back and hurt us. It just sucks to lose like that.”
Coming off a win over the defending Super Bowl-champion Baltimore Ravens and their first bye under the guidance of coach Rob Chudzinski, the Browns fell to 4-6 and are tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who’ll visit Cleveland next weekend, and Ravens for last in the AFC North. The Bengals, meanwhile, improved to 7-4 entering their Week 12 bye and now have a commanding 2½-game lead for first place.
The Browns won their first meeting between the two teams 17-6 on Sept. 29 in Cleveland, and they appeared to be on the verge of rolling to victory after capturing a 13-0 lead in the first quarter via two field goals from Billy Cundiff and cornerback Joe Haden’s 29-yard interception return for a touchdown. Then all hell broke loose in the second quarter because of what Chudzinski described as “plays that were a disaster.” The Browns haven’t won in Cincinnati since 2008, and they’re 1-4 on the road this season.
“Anytime you turn the ball over and the other team’s able to score off of that or get into field position where they can score, anytime you have punts blocked, there’s four plays right there that were huge plays in the game,” Chudzinski said. “That’s really the bottom line.”
Chudzinski’s men could never fully recover from those backbreaking meltdowns. Meanwhile, the plays helped the Bengals set a franchise record for points in a quarter. The Bengals had scored 28 points a quarter three times, most recently in the second quarter of a win over the Detroit Lions on Nov. 19, 1989.
• The Bengals deflected a pass from quarterback Jason Campbell near the line of scrimmage, allowing linebacker James Harrison to intercept it with 44 seconds left in the first quarter. It was the first of Campbell’s three interceptions, all of which were deflected. He completed 27-of-56 passes for 248 yards and one touchdown, took four sacks, fumbled once and finished with a passer rating of 44.3. Two plays later, tight end Jermaine Gresham beat linebacker Craig Robertson on a corner route, caught a pass from quarterback Andy Dalton at the 2-yard line and fought off Robertson, strong safety T.J. Ward and Haden to get into the end zone for a 25-yard touchdown with 14:52 remaining in the second quarter.
• The Browns then went three-and-out, and backup safety Shawn Williams partially blocked Spencer Lanning’s punt. Lanning shifted to his right to catch the snap from Christian Yount, and the punt traveled only 9 yards to the Browns’ 38 after it was deflected. Two plays later, Dalton threw the ball back to wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, and Sanu completed a 25-yard pass to running back Giovani Bernard that stood after Chudzinski challenged whether Bernard maintained possession while falling out of bounds at the Browns’ 9. Three plays later, Sanu beat cornerback Chris Owens and Ward in the back corner of the end zone and grabbed a 6-yard touchdown pass from Dalton, giving the Bengals a 14-13 lead with 11:49 left in the second quarter.
• Campbell and the offense struggled to find rhythm for most of the gloomy, gusty afternoon, even though the downpour didn’t start until the third quarter, and three series later, they stalled again. Bengals linebacker Jayson DiManche blew past rookie outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo and running back Chris Ogbonnaya and blocked a punt from Lanning, allowing safety Tony Dye to fall on the ball and return it 24 yards for a touchdown with 4:35 left in the first half. It was the first blocked punt allowed by the Browns since 1993.
• During the ensuing possession, Ogbonnaya caught a pass in the flat and lost the ball after being hit by linebacker Vontaze Burfict and defensive end Wallace Gilberry. Burfict, who was credited with the forced fumble, scooped up the ball and ran 13 yards for a touchdown and a 28-13 advantage with 2:45 left in the second quarter.
“One thing went wrong, then another thing went wrong, special-teams errors, and then before you know it, it was an upside-down game for us,” Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon said. “We know we can beat this team. We just literally gave them the game.”
With one second remaining in the first half, Mike Nugent made a 41-yard field goal to lift the Bengals to a 31-13 halftime advantage despite the Browns yielding only three first downs and 108 yards in the first two quarters. Adam Jones’ 27-yard punt return gave the Bengals possession at the Browns’ 32 with 20 seconds left and helped set up the field goal.
The Browns trimmed their deficit to 31-20 when Gordon beat cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick on a go route and hauled in a perfect pass from Campbell for a 74-yard touchdown with 9:29 left in the third quarter. However, the Bengals ensured their second-quarter slaughter wouldn’t go to waste when Dalton and former Browns tight end Alex Smith connected for a 2-yard touchdown pass with 11:50 left in the fourth quarter, and Nugent tacked on a 38-yard field goal with 8:04 remaining.
As the Browns fled Cincinnati for their turbulent flight back to Northeast Ohio, they were left wondering what could have been done to avoid a horrendous second quarter in the first game since 1989 in which they met the Bengals with significant playoff implications on the line for both teams.
“I thought we were going to be able to keep it going,” Haden said of the Browns’ early lead. “Momentum was good. Everything was good. Everybody was clapping hands on the sidelines. Then it just flopped.
“When our defense was out there, they weren’t doing anything to us. We felt like our defense was doing a really good job, but you have to play all phases of the game to win out here in this league, especially playing a team like Cincinnati.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.