On a grand day for rookies and milestones Sunday at Paycor Stadium, the Bengals played their first game of 2024 the way they envision playing the upcoming 2024 season in a brisk 31-14 takedown of the Browns in the 2023 regular-season finale.
The Bengals ripped off the game's first 31 points, lifted quarterback Jake Browning for AJ McCarron in the third quarter, and finished 9-8 for their third straight winning season.
For the AFC North it marked the first time since 1935 the NFL has had a division where every team has a winning record.
Jeff Driskel, the Browns' fifth starting quarterback of the season and the first in the 54-year history of the Battle of Ohio to start for both teams, had a rude welcome back to Paycor.
As the Bengals built their biggest lead of the season at 31-0, Driskel, signed last week, completed just seven of his first 18 passes for 60 yards and converted one of his first nine third downs as the game went into the early fourth quarter.
Meanwhile, with four catches for 19 yards, wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase became the third Bengal to have 100 catches and running back Joe Mixon bulled for 111 yards on just 14 carries for his fourth 1,000-yard season. Only Bengals all-time leading rusher Corey Dillon (six) has more in club history.
Bengals Pro Bowl right end Trey Hendrickson was credited with half a sack and finished with 17.5 1.5 behind NFL leader T.J. Watt.
Plus, rookie wide receiver Andrei Iosivas had his first two-touchdown game, rookie safety Jordan Battle had his first interception, rookie wide receiver Charlie Jones had a career-best 62 yards from scrimmage, and rookie running back Chase Brown reeled off another explosive run, this time for 27 yards. That helped the Bengals rush for 183 yards, their most since they went for 241 last year against the Panthers.
The Bengals made quick work of a Cleveland team resting its starters for the start of next week's playoffs.
Browning raised his record in his first seven NFL starts to 4-3 on 18 of 24 passing for 156 yards and his third triple-digit passer rating of 113.9. He left after conducting a 99-yard drive, the first for the Bengals since Carl Pickens capped one on a David Klingler four-yard touchdown pass against head coach Bill Parcells' 1994 Patriots. Along with drawing the Browns into the neutral zone twice on the drive (one from his 1 and one to convert a fourth down) Browning hit all five passes in the drive for 49 yards, the last to Iosivas for a seven-yard touchdown.
The Bengals defense was immense in that first half. When Evan McPherson drilled a 45-yard field goal through a nasty to-the-city wind to put them up 24-0 on the first play after the two-minute warning, the Bengals had allowed only 24 yards (they had 241) and their second interception of the half set up McPherson.
Edge Joseph Ossai worked up the middle and got a hand on Driskel's arm as he was throwing. Driskel, a Red Sox draft pick, produced a major-league popup. Linebacker Logan Wilson caught it and went 26 yards the other way with some moves that conjured up his all-everything days growing up in Wyoming on his fourth interception of the season.
It was also the 11th of his career, most by an NFL linebacker in the 2020s and four more than runnerups Fred Warner and Roquan Smith. The only Bengals linebackers with more career interceptions are Reggie Williams (16) and Al Beauchamp (15).
Hendrickson didn't get a full sack, but Bash Brother Sam Hubbard did on the other side in the first half, when slot cornerback Mike Hilton racked up his 12th tackle for a loss this season.
Browning finished the half 12 of 16 for 108 yards with two touchdown passes for a 106.2 passer rating while Mixon racked up 90 of his yards on nine carries.
Mixon, needing 77 yards for 1,000, set the tone right away. He ripped off 39 on his first four carries. He punished the Browns up the middle for gains of 16 and 13 yards, then went outside for a ghastly stiff-arm on a nine-yarder, and then scored on a one-yard toss for his 49th career rushing touchdown.
That moved him past Rudi Johnson on the Bengals all-time list, leaving only Pete Johnson's 64 ahead of him.
Then on the next series, Mixon really went after the milestones.
He shot through right tackle Jonah Williams and right guard Alex Cappa for 44 yards to put him over a grand on his longest run in exactly five years. Or when Driskel handed off to him for a 51-yarder in the 2018 finale in Pittsburgh.
Mixon then scored his 52nd career touchdown when he took Browning's six-yard flip in the left flat, shrugged off linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk like a bad idea, and gave them a 14-0 lead in the last minute of the first quarter.
That puts him eighth on the Cincy touchdown list, one shy of Bengals Ring of Honor member Isaac Curtis.
Iosivas, who set up that touchdown with nicely-timed back-shoulder throw down the left sideline for 15 yards on third-and-eight, gave them a 21-0 lead when he caught a three-yard touchdown pass across the middle.
They traded interceptions to open the game. Battle logged his first NFL interception when he picked Driskel's first pass of the game. It was an overthrow for wide receiver Cedric Tillman covered by rookie cornerback D.J. Turner and Battle ranged from centerfield to make a nice running, low catch just before he went out of bounds.
Moments later, Browning overthrew slot receiver Tyler Boyd over the middle and safety D'Anthony Bell made a diving catch of the ricochet.
That set up a third-and-nine for Driskel and Hendrickson beat left tackle Geno Christian Jr. to get to him first. It looked like his 18th sack of the year, but just before he went down, Driskel slithered away, only to have tackle B.J. Hill get the sack.