CLEVELAND- Quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green returned to the home of their 2011 NFL debut Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium and lit up the Browns on the way to putting the finishing touches on a 37-3 victory.
In becoming the first Bengals team to go 10-2 for the first time in 40 years, the Dalton-Green connection racked up 102 yards in the first 17 minutes to take a 14-0 lead.
Then after defensive end Carlos Dunlap blocked Travis Coons' 47-yard field goal midway through the third quarter, Dalton and Green hooked up again with Green making an absolutely balletic tap-shoe move on the left sideline for a 20-yard catch that put the ball inside the Cleveland 1.
Running back Jeremy Hill then scored on the ensuing play to make it 27-3 on a rather significant snap. It was the first NFL play for first-rounder Cedric Ogbuehi, lining up as an extra tackle. And when Hill bulled in, he kept running to the Dawg Pound to leap into the stands and greet some Bengals fans, a la Chad Johnson.
But unlike Johnson, who got drenched by angry Browns fans, Hill was confronted by Browns linebacker Christian Kirksey and after they jawed, Kirksey got called for unsportsman-like conduct.
At that point, it was all over as Dalton put the finishing touches on a 146.8 rating, the second best of his career on 14 of 19 passing for 220 yards and two touchdowns. Since the Browns put him through the miserable 2 rating last year, the Bengals have won three straight over Cleveland by a score of 98-13.
It was a big day for Dalton before A.J. McCarron took over with 4:27 left in front of Ogbuehi at left tackle and rookie right tackle Jake Fisher. Not only did Dalton join Peyton Manning in the 3,000 club, he also won his 50th game and joined Matt Ryan (56), Joe Flacco (54), and Ben Roethlisberger (51) as the only quarterbacks to win 50 in their first five seasons since the 1970 merger. It also was his 24th road win, the most of any quarterback in his first five seasons since 1970.
Dalton hit wide receiver Marvin Jones for a 21-yard touchdown bomb down the right sideline with 42 seconds left in the third quarter as the Bengals hit the 30-point mark for the third straight game.
Then when Bengals middle linebacker Rey Maualuga recovered a fumble at the Browns 36, the Bengals wound down the clock with Hill's season-high 98 yards on 22 carries to set up Mike Nugent's 20-yard field goal that made it 37-3 with 5:45 left. The fumble was forced by the rampaging Dunlap, who also had his 9.5th sack.
They built a 20-3 half-time lead when Nugent kicked field goals of 44 and 40 set up by a fourth-down stop and safety Reggie Nelson's NFL-leading seventh interception of quarterback Austin Davis in his first Browns start.
The Browns scored on the last play of the half on a 47-yard field goal, meaning the Bengals have allowed 10 points or less in five of the last six games. Davis was sacked just three times, but Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins was all over him as they forced two intentional grounding calls.
Dalton hit seven of 12 passes for 139 yards in the half for a 126.7 passer rating and Green finished the half with 102 yards on three catches, 128 on five catches for the game. Hill, who later had his longest run of the sesson on a 17-yarder, had 27 yards on seven carries in the half before he and the Bengals stole the clock in the second half.
Dalton's sweet go ball to Green off play-action set up the first touchdown on a 57-yard gain and his laser 23-yard touchdown pass to Green down the left sideline came within minutes of Michael Johnson's fourth-down sack.
Green strafed cornerback Tramon Williams down the left sideline on the 57-yarder and Williams barely tripped him up at the Browns 22 to prevent the touchdown. Fittingly it was a Dalton-Green long ball that allowed Dalton to join Manning as the only quarterbacks to throw for 3,000 yards in each of their first five seasons.
Then Dalton simply counted the box on third-and-goal from the Browns 3 and his improvised sneak gave the Bengals a 7-0 lead with 3:45 left in the first quarter.
Dalton also converted a fourth-and-1 from the 5 with help from a backfield push as the NFL's second-best red-zone offense scored its 31st touchdown once inside the 20.
When the Browns went for it on fourth-and-11 from the Bengals 36, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther lined up his cornerbacks in press one-on-one coverage and loaded up a Nelson blitz on the left side from his safety spot. But no one blocked Michael Johnson at right end and his sack gave the Bengals the ball at their own 46.
Dalton wasted no time going for the jugular on the first snap when he hit Green over the middle for 22 yards and after running back Giovani Bernard's eight-yard run, Green beat Williams again down the left sideline when Williams pulled up, apparently expecting help over the top.
It moved Green into third place on the Bengals receiving TD list with 42 and he went into halftime with his fifth straight 1,000-yard season. Only Green and Randy Moss have done that in their first five seasons.
But the red-zone offense stalled with the 14-0 lead after the defense gave them the ball in great field position, once at their 40 when Davis threw high roll-out pass on fourth-and-1. They worked to the Browns 14 with the help of a 17-yard throw to rookie tight end Tyler Kroft, making his first NFL start in place of Tyler Eifert.
But a false start on right tackle Andre Smith set up a third-and-nine and Dalton couldn't find anybody open on a coverage sack and Nugent hit the 44-yarder to make it 17-0 with 6:26 left in the first half.
Then they got the ball on the Browns 26 when Davis went long and Browns wide receiver Brian Hartline went short and Nelson nabbed the overthrow for his 22nd interception as a Bengal, breaking a tie with Tory James and putting him sixth on the list.
Nelson returned it 31 yards and the Bengals had a second-and-five from the 16, but tight end Ryan Hewitt false started and Dalton couldn't complete balls over the middle to Green and wide receiver Rex Burkhead.
The last field-goal drive at the end of the half turned out to be the only spate of offense for the Browns. They tried to take advantage of the Bengals banged up secondary, running it just 10 times for 35 yards as Davis completed 14 of 23 passes for 128 yards in the half. He finished 25 of 28 for 230 yards and a 74 passer rating.
Rookie cornerback Josh Shaw made the secondary even thinner when he left with a back injury late in the first half and rookie cornerback Troy Hill, activated from the practice squad for special teams on Saturday, made his NFL debut from scrimmage in the second half when Shaw didn't return.
The Browns, already decimated at wide receiver, lost their best one when Travis Benjamin left early for the game with a shoulder early.
PRE-GAME NOTES: The Bengals inactivated slot cornerback Leon Hall and safety George Iloka for Sunday's game at FirstEnergy Stadium against the Browns in the first severe test of their rookies and depth this season.
They activated rookie tackle Cedric Ogbuehi for his first NFL game a week after he came off the injured list and rookie tight end Tyler Kroft got his first start with NFL touchdown leader Tyler Eifert out with a pinched nerve. Rookie tight end C.J. Uzomah also dressed for the first time.
Also making their NFL debut Sunday was backup rookie cornerback Troy Hill as well as backup rookie wide receiver Mario Alford in an effort to bolster special teams in light of the shuffled bodies. And rookie cornerback Josh Shaw was expected to play the slot in place of Hall.
Third-year man Shawn Williams drew the second start of his career in place of Iloka, out with a groin injury. When Iloka missed the Oct. 4 win over Kansas City, Hall started in his place. But with Hall missing his second game this season with a back problem, Williams gets the call.
Veteran tackle Eric Winston was inactive to make room for Ogbuehi, the first-round pick who has drawn raves in practice. Defensive tackle Pat Sims got the nod over Brandon Thompson and Margus Hunt replaced Will Clarke at defensive end. Clarke and Thompson weren't on the injury report this week. Neither was rookie defensive lineman Marcus Hardison, yet to be active this season.
The Browns sat wide receiver Dwayne Bowe, their $9 million free agent, and activated rookie wide receiver Darius Jennings.
Cincinnati Bengals travel to Cleveland to play the Browns in week 13 of the regular season 12/06/2015