Cornerback Adam Jones jump-started the Bengals in Sunday's Paul Brown Stadium opener with an 81-yard punt return and wide receiver Andrew Hawkins finished it off with an electrifying Road Runner twisting 50-yard touchdown catch on third down as the Bengals celebrated their first victory of the season, 34-27, over the Browns before a sold-out 63,036 gathering of the faithful.
Quarterback Andy Dalton, piloting his first 30-point game at PBS while hitting 24 of 31 throws for 318 yards and 128.2 passer rating, also threw touchdown passes to Hawkins's fellow wide receivers A.J. Green and Brandon Tate with the 44-yarder to Tate coming on third-and-six on the first drive of the second half.
But Dalton's biggest third-and-six completion came with just under four minutes left when he hit tight end Jermaine Gresham's back shoulder for a 22-yard completion on the left sideline. Gresham juggled the ball, but caught it on the rebound just before he stepped out of bounds and the play help up under the Browns challenge.
That set up Mike Nugent's 37-yard field goal with 2:09 left for the 10-point pad the Bengals needed because the Browns brought back all the ghosts.
Running back Trent Richardson, becoming the first Browns rookie to rush for 100 yards in a game since Lee Suggs put 186 on the Bengals in the 2003 finale, shredded Cincinnati for 109 yards and his remarkable 23-yard touchdown run off a dump pass on the last play from scrimmage in the third quarter cut the lead to 24-17.
On the play four Bengals missed Richardson inside the 10: linebackers Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict, and cornerbacks Leon Hall and Nate Clements.
But enter Hawkins. After old friend Frostee Rucker dumped Dalton for a 10-yard loss, the Bengals were staring at third-and-long from the 50. Dalton got chased out of the pocket toward the right sideline. But he saw Hawkins in the middle of the field working in space against cornerback Tevin Wade and threw it back across his body. Hawkins caught it for the first down coming across the middle to the sideline and then he took off up the side and made a hellacious cut at about the 20 back to the middle of the field to finish it off with 10:44 left in the game.
Weeden, who had a 114.9 passer rating and 322 yards of his own, had his way against the Bengals secondary and cut the gap to 24-17 when no one covered Browns wide receiver Greg Little on a 24-yard touchdown pass with 7:11 left.
The Bengals took a 17-10 halftime lead, but it could have been more.
With the clock ticking under four minutes in the first half, Browns running back Chris Ogbbonnaya beat Maualuga in the middle of the field on a dump pass over the middle and he turned it into a big play before Bengals cornerback Terence Newman lowered his shoulder and popped the ball loose and right end Michael Johnson recovered it at the Cleveland 43 with 3:42 left in the half.
But Gresham, flagged for a false start on the first Bengals snap of the game, was called for a hold this time and the drive ended in a punt.
That came on the heels of a Bengals foray into the red zone when rookie wide receiver Marvin Jones took off on a go route and drew a pass interference call at the Browns 18.
But right tackle Andre Smith false-started on the first snap following the PI flag and the Bengals had to settle for Nugent's 39-yard field goal with 4:45 left in the half to make it 17-10. On second and third down, Dalton had Green and Hawkins breaking open from the middle of the field to the right corner of the end zone and overthrew them.
That's how it looked for both the Bengals offense and defense in the first half. Sometimes very good and sometimes not. Dalton led a crisp touchdown drive early in the second quarter ignited when he floated a beauty down the left sideline on second-and-11 to wide receiver Armon Binns working inside against cornerback Buster Skrine for a 20-yard gain to the Browns 45.
The Browns, without starting cornerbacks Joe Haden (NFL suspension) and Sheldon Brown, did a great job in the first half shadowing the Bengals receivers downfield and forcing Dalton to hold the ball in the pocket and blanking the Bengals on all five third-down tries in the half.
But after the 20-yarder to Binns, Dalton hit Green for his first catch of the day with 12 minutes left in the second quarter on a 12-yard slant over the middle.
Then running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, following a big block by left guard Clint Boling, ran the ball to the Browns 10 for a 19-yard gain.
On the next snap Green, lined up wide right, stopped short and caught a quick ball in front of cornerback Dimitri Patterson, and when he made a move inside he beat Patterson to the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown with 10:27 left in the quarter that made it 14-3.
The Bengals defense that had been so good in the first quarter then had a blip. Richardson, held to 39 yards in his debut last week with a long of nine, got 32 yards all at once on a touchdown run with 8:05 left in the first half that cut Cincinnati's lead to 14-10. Richardson took a delayed handoff behind his right guard untouched and he didn't have a linebacker near him at the second level and all Richardson had to do was outrun everybody into the end zone.
Dalton, the victim of three coverage sacks in the half, went 9-of-14 for 102 yards with the TD for a passer rating of 109.8. Weeden, so much better Sunday than he was last week in his four-pick debut, didn't throw one in the first half and was 9-of-15 for 121 yards and was greatly helped by Richardson's 83 yards on 13 carries.
A funny thing happened on the way to the Bengals showdown with Cleveland special teams Pro Bowler Josh Cribbs when the forgotten Adam Jones knocked off six-year-old cobwebs and returned a punt 81 yards for a touchdown in the game's first 1:47 to give the Bengals a 7-0 lead with the sellout crowd barely in the seats.
Jones made anywhere between five and seven tacklers miss up the left sideline and accelerated the last 20 yards behind a pancake block from safety Jeromy Miles for his fifth NFL career punt return touchdown and first since he had three in the 2006 season.
Jones had been hurt all preseason with tight hamstrings and quads and didn't do any returning except in rehab, and wide receiver Brandon Tate took all the returns in Monday night's opener. But after right end Michael Johnson's sack working against Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas, Jones trotted out to take Reggie Hodges's punt.
With WILL backer Thomas Howard suffering a season-ending knee injury in Thursday's practice, the Bengals showed the Browns a different look. Vincent Rey lined up in Howard's spot to start the game.
Plus, Miles moved into Taylor Mays's safety spot and rookie Vontaze Burfict rotated with Rey. Burfict, the slowest linebacker at last February's NFL scouting combine, showed how far he's come when he went step for step with tight end Alex Smith and forced an incompletion despite a good pass byWeeden.
The new look held up early. A blitz by cornerback Leon Hall forced a third-down incompletion and the Browns had to settle for Phil Dawson's 50-yard field goal that cut the lead to 7-3 midway through the first quarter.
PREGAME NOTES: Because the season-ending ACL injury to WILL backer Thomas Howard came so late in the week, the special teams are going to bear the brunt of it for the Bengals on Sunday in the Paul Brown Stadium opener against the Browns.
The Bengals not only had their best linebacker iced Sunday, but their best outside pass rusher, left end Carlos Dunlap (knee), was inactive for the second straight game, as was running Bernard Scott (hand). Head coach Marvin Lewis indicated last week both were close, so all signs point to them making their 2012 debuts next week on the road against the Redskins.
Lewis also indicated it's going to be a three-headed replacement for Howard among rookie Vontaze Burfict and two special teams standouts in Dan Skuta and Vincent Rey. Lewis gave Burfict his first NFL start, in some part, because of the three he plays the fewest special teams. Burfict plays on most of them, but Skuta and Rey play on all of them. Because the injury came just 72 hours before the game, there wasn't enough time to rip up the special teams game plan, a huge part of this matchup because of record-breaking Browns return man Josh Cribbs.
Look for those three to divide up Howard's snaps in relation to what the Browns are running and how much gas they're expending on special teams.
Lewis called Howard's injury "freak," and indications are it was similar to a non-contact injury. Apparently during the non-padded practice when he was blitzing a blocker lightly pushed him aside and he went down.
Also inactive were cornerbacks Jason Allen and Dre Kirkpatrick, tight ends Donald Lee and Richard Quinn, and wide receiver Ryan Whalen.
It's been a remarkable rise for Burfict after he came out of Arizona State undrafted with questions about his composure and weight following a terrible NFL scouting combine. But he dropped 15 pounds and has responded well in every way with the coaches impressed by his football instincts and knowledge of the playbook. He apparently knows it well enough that he's able to start at a spot that isn't his primary position.
Scott being inactive is an intriguing element in this one. Although the Browns gave up 110 yards in 20 LeSean McCoy carries last week in their loss to Philadelphia and they finished 30th against the rush last season, Cleveland is stout up the middle. Middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson led all NFL players with 94 tackles against the run last year and tackle Ahtyba Rubin has led all interior linemen in tackles since 2010.
But they've been hurt on the edge, which is where the speed back Scott has done damage.
Although wide receiver Armon Binns had been named the starter during the week, Brandon Tate was announced. The game captains were Jeromy Miles, Nate Clements, Andre Smith, Jermaine Gresham and Robert Geathers. The Bengals won the toss and deferred.