In true AFC North fashion against a backdrop only the Weather Channel could love in a blustery, on-again, off-again second-half rain, the 7-4 Bengals seized control of the division with a 41-20 victory over the Browns courtesy of defense and special teams before a drip-dry gathering of 63,856 at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium.
A deflected punt, a blocked punt for a touchdown, and a 13-yard forced fumble for a touchdown by WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict in a stunning eight minutes of the second quarter put the Bengals in control of the AFC North with three of their last five games at PBS following next week's bye.
Sunday's win, coupled with Baltimore's overtime loss to the Bears and Pittsburgh's win over Detroit, gives the Bengals a two-and-a-half game lead over all three teams with remaining North games at Pittsburgh and at home against Baltimore in the season-finale.
Even though they went into the fourth quarter just one-of-11 on third down with less than 150 yards of offense and quarterback Andy Dalton's frigid 48.7 passer rating, the Bengals survived with the centerpiece of their team as their defense generated four turnovers.
Safety Reggie Nelson gobbled up the club's second of three interceptions of the day and defensive lineman Wallace Gilberry racked up the team's third of four sacks to keep the 4-6 Browns at bay in the quarter, and on a day where all 61 points of the game were scored going toward downtown with the wind, that was no small point.
That gave the Bengals enough time to finally get their running game going in an effort to protect an 11-point lead. With the desperate Browns sending the house, running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis ripped off Cincinnati's longest rush of the day, an 18-yarder, and running back Giovani Bernard followed that up with a big 13-yard run to the Browns 2 where he made one of the NFL's most lethal hitters,Browns safety Tashaun Gipson, miss. From there, with defensive tackle Domata Peko lined up as the blocking back, Dalton's play-action pass found former Browns tight end Alex Smith for a two-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter that made it 38-20 on Dalton's third scoring pass of the day.
The three TDs cushioned his worst passing output in a complete game, just 93 yards on 13-of-27 passing. How bizarre was this one? The Bengals scored 41 points despite just two catches for career-low seven yards by wide receiver A.J. Green.
The Bengals showed the luxury of relentless defense and special teams in Sunday's first half when they scored touchdowns on a blocked punt and a fumble recovery in a span of 1:25 to fuel a franchise-record 31 unanswered points in the second quarter and a 31-13 halftime lead.
For good measure, cornerback Adam Jones's reverse-field 27-yard punt return set up Mike Nugent's 41-yard field goal with two seconds left in the half for the club record for points in a quarter even though the Bengals had just three first downs.
The Browns cut it to 31-20 when Browns quarterback Jason Campbell threw a beautiful 74-yard bomb to wide receiver Josh Gordon racing down the left sideline past cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick with nine minutes left in the third quarter for the longest play from scrimmage against Cincinnati since 2011.
And just after Gordon scored the skies opened up in the predicted monsoon and it went on and off the rest of the game.
First-year safety Tony Dye, promoted from the practice squad 24 hours earlier, made his NFL debut memorable when he scooped up rookie linebacker Jayson DiManche's blocked punt at the 24 and walked in to give the Bengals a 21-13 lead with 4:10 left in the half. It was the second time the Bengals got to punter Spencer Lanning in the quarter. While DiManche came up the middle on a loop, moments before rookie safety Shawn Williams simply beat his man inside and deflected it for an eight-yard punt.
DiManche's block bookended two field-goal blocks by left end Carlos Dunlap earlier in the season to give the Bengals three blocked kicks in a season for the first time since 1991.
Adding to the deluge, Burfict smoked running back Chris Ogbonnaya on a checkdown pass, forced the fumble, scooped it up, and returned it 13 yards for a touchdown that made it 28-13 with 2:45 left in the half.
The inspired play took Dalton and his struggling offense off a very big hook as the Bengals were trying to take a 2.5-game lead on the Browns and Ravens in the AFC North with five games to play.
Before the offense could get a first down, one of Dalton's two first-quarter interceptions went for cornerback Joe Haden's pick-six as the Browns shot to a 13-0 lead late in the first quarter.
But as usual, defense and special teams saved the day and Dalton got it back on the rails soon enough to throw two touchdowns to suddenly give the Bengals an improbable 14-13 lead with 11:49 left in the first half. Somehow, the Bengals had 31 points even though Dalton finished the half just 8-of-18 for 63 yards and a passer rating of 51.2.
A remarkable effort by SAM linebacker James Harrison started it all late in the first quarter when he tipped up a pass headed to Gordon and grabbed the rebound for an interception set up the first Bengals touchdown, a 25-yarder to tight end Jermaine Gresham where he broke three tackles inside the 2.
Then moments later, Williams partially blocked a punt to give the Bengals the ball at the Cleveland 38. Now enter wide receiver Mohamed Sanu.
He took a lateral from Dalton on a sweep left, stopped, launched his second NFL pass all the way across the field to Bernard, and dropped it in perfectly as Bernard went out of bounds at the Browns 9 for a 25-yard completion. Much like Sanu's first NFL pass, a 78-yard touchdown pass last season.
Then on third-and-goal from the 6, Sanu lined up in the slot and beat safety T.J. Ward to the right corner, where Sanu made a leaping touchdown catch to set up Nugent's go-ahead extra point.
Harrison actually scored a touchdown on his pick, a 21-yard return he capped off bowling over center Alex Mack at the Browns 5 and then dragging him into the end zone. But defensive tackle Brandon Thompson was called for blocking left tackle Joe Thomas in the back.
The Browns could manage just 141 yards of offense in the half, but it dwarfed Cincinnati's 108. The Bengals hounded Campbell for two sacks (Kirkpatrick blitzing off the slot and left end Carlos Dunlap), forced Campbell's first interception of the year, and left Campbell 13-of-24 passing for 64 yards in the half.
The beat went on for Dalton in the first quarter of the Bengals biggest game of the season when his two interceptions in the first 12 minutes staked the Browns to a 13-0 lead and gave him eight interceptions in the last 10 quarters.
Back to-back passes to Green were picked off by Haden, the last a 29-yard touchdown return that left the sold-out crowd stunned until it started to boo the offense on its next series, trailing 13-0.
On the next series the Bengals proceeded to:
» On first down have a checkdown pass tipped at the line of scrimmage by defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin.
» On second down had left tackle Andrew Whitworth called for a hold on a run.
» On second down, Gresham dropped a pass.
» On third down a checkdown pass to Bernard was far short of the first down.
The Browns, 26th running the ball in the NFL, weren't supposed to run it against the Bengals but they got their longest run of the season from scrimmage by a running back on Ogbonnaya's 43-yarder that set up Billy Cundiff's 20-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead with 4:10 left in the first quarter.
But it was a patented Bengals goal-line stand as the defense blunted the Browns on first-and-goal from the 2 after Burfict picked up his team-high ninth penalty when it was ruled he pushed Mack after the whistle.
But on second down Campbell had to overthrow tight end Jordan Cameron because of linebacker J.K. Schaffer's coverage and on third down the Bengals replaced their goal-line package with their regular defense. It resulted in right end Michael Johnson's batted pass, a huge play because wide receiver Greg Little was wide open at the goal line.
The Bengals special teams made themselves felt early. Kevin Huber drilled his longest punt of the year, a 66-yarder into a seven-mile-per-hour wind that pinned the Browns on their 14-yard line and the defense did the rest. Nelson blew up McGahee for a two-yard loss on a second-down blitz and Kirkpatrick, playing the slot for the injured Chris Crocker, blitzed for the sack.
But the Browns and their fifth-best NFL defense gave nothing early and sent the Bengals packing on their second straight third-and-out. Trying to protect Dalton against the Browns pass rush, running back BenJarvis Green-Ellis churned six yards on two carries against the stingy Cleveland run defense and facing a third-and-four, Dalton took a shot at Green but he was stoned a yard shy of the first down when he was immediately taken down in bracket coverage by Haden and a safety.
PREGAME NOTES: Veteran offensive lineman Mike Pollak drew his first Bengals start Sunday when he got the call for the inactive Kevin Zeitler (foot) at right guard for Sunday's game against the Browns at Paul Brown Stadium.
SAM linebacker James Harrison (calf) who missed Friday's practice after working all week, was listed as questionable but was active.
Also out were nickel back Chris Crocker (hamstring) and wide receiver Ryan Whalen (coach's decision), the first time the Bengals haven't gone with seven wide receivers since Andrew Hawkins returned to the lineup Oct. 31 in Miami.
Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga (knee) missed his third straight, but looked good working out on the field before the game and looks good to go in San Diego on Dec. 1 after the Bengals go on a bye next weekend.
Also inactive were running back Rex Burkhead, offensive lineman Tanner Hawkinson and defensive tackle Devon Still. It's believed Still (forearm) can also get back for San Diego.
Practice squad safety Tony Dye, a first-year player, replaced cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris on the roster when the Bengals waived Lewis-Harris on Saturday and he made his NFL debut on the active sheet.
Pollak, a six-year man signed in the offseason, had 41 starts for the Colts, primarily at left guard. With Crocker out, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick figures to draw Browns wide receiver Davone Bess in the slot.
The rain appeared to stop as kickoff neared, but the heavy stuff with potential thunderstorms was forecast to come in after halftime with the severe weather predicted for after 4 p.m. Winds out of the south and east at 15 to 20 miles per hour were to gust up to 35 miles per hour at times. The wind was at seven miles-per-hour during pregame.
BROWN ON MCCORMACK: The death of Browns Hall of Famer Mike McCormack, also a former Bengals assistant coach, hit Bengals president Mike Brown close to home.
"Mike was the last of my true football heroes," Brown said. "He was a captain of the old Browns and he represented everything a captain should. He was a great player and great person off the field. The NFL never made them better than Mike."