The Bengals revamped lineups on both sides of the ball in Sunday's regular-season finale in Cleveland played good enough defense to win generating two turnovers, but the offense couldn't hold up its end of the bargain in a 21-16 loss.
Earlier in the game, Bengals rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase broke Chad Johnson's single-season club record when he ripped off a 24-yard wide receiver screen to finish the season with 1,455 yards.
The Bengals, looking at next week's Wild Card Game at Paul Brown Stadium, finished 10-7 with what appeared to be the AFC's fourth seed. That could mean a game against the New England Patriots or Buffalo Bills.
The Bengals cut it to 21-16 with 2:26 left in the game on quarterback Brandon Allen's rollout four-yard touchdown pass to rookie running back Chris Evans on fourth-and-one, but Allen couldn't connect on an end-zone pass on the two-pointer.
View the best game action photos from the Bengals closing the 2021 regular season against the Cleveland Browns.
Bengals pinch-kicker Elliott Fry then pulled off an onside-kick and even though the Browns fumbled the Bengals couldn't get it back and Cincinnati was enraged with a call that took minutes.
Evans had a nice day with 35 yards on seven carries and 24 more on four catches, but that was about the only sign of offense. The Bengals could manage just a season-low 182 yards as Allen finished 15 of 29 for only 136 yards through the air.
Working with Allen and a makeshift offensive line featuring rookie left tackle D'Ante Smith making his first NFL start against 15-sacker Myles Garrett, Chase got the record on the first play of the second series. He followed wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr.'s perimeter block and then went past Johnson when he ran out of free safety John Johnson III's tackle.
That left him with 1,455, 18 shy of Bill Groman's all-time rookie record set in the AFL 10 years before the merger and Allen went right back to him on a far sideline route that was overthrown.
That was it as Chase was called to the sidelines, where he was given a jacket after two catches for 26 yards.
The Bengals converted their first of seven third downs six minutes into the third quarter and it came when Browns cornerback Greedy Williams was called for pass interference on Morgan , a 16-yard flag that put the Bengals at the Browns 23.
But once they reached the Cleveland 11, they took a delay of game call and when Allen pumped faked in the pocket it allowed Garrett to get under rookie Smith for a sack.
Fry, pinch-kicking for Evan McPherson resting a groin injury, coaxed a 36-yarder off the crossbar in his first Bengals' field goal try that cut it 14-10 with 5:01 left in the third quarter.
But after the Browns shelved running back Nick Chubb for most of the first half, they rolled him back out looking for something like the 70-yarder he stung them with back in November. And he did on a 35 yarder that put the Browns inside the Bengals 10.
But the Bengals held. On third down, linebacker Markus Bailey and cornerback Trae Waynes rallied to wide receiver Jarvis Landry to stop him at the 2. On fourth down, cornerback Trey Flowers had good coverage on wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones and Keenum threw it behind him.
But the Bengals offense had few answers Sunday. They went three-and-out after Allen couldn't hit two targets to wide receiver Mike Thomas. Kevin Huber, getting plenty of work in his franchise-tying 207th game, got off a good one on his seventh punt of the day. It went to midfield and Thomas knocked it out of the hands of Peoples-Jones, but the Browns recovered after the refs reversed it with 13:14 left in the game.
The Browns, working with all its starting offensive linemen but one, just decided to work the clock and they handed it off to running back D'Ernest Johnson nine straight times for 36 yards on the way to Cleveland rolling up 205 yards on the ground at five yards per pop. That's the most yards the Bengals defense has allowed this season. Even on second-and-nine from the 11 they ran it, where Bailey and linebacker Clay Johnston wrapped up Johnson after a yard gain. But the Browns ran a screen on third down with running back Demetric Felton split out, Waynes just missed him at the line of scrimmage and the Browns went up 21-10 with seven minutes left on the touchdown in a drive that consumed six minutes.
The Bengals revamped defense pitched well in the first half and gave them a shot despite gaining just 65 yards in the half.
Call it pure irony. The Bengals broke the club record for most points in a season with 3:29 left on safety Trayvon Henderson's 29-yard fumble return for a touchdown after defensive end Wyatt Ray hit Keenum's arm jus as he began to throw. Henderson, a three-year member of the practice squad playing in his 10th career game and second of the season, converted the Bengals' first fumble return for a touchdown since rookie defensive end Sam Hubbard took one in against Miami in 2018.
Keenum then should have had his 13th straight completion for a touchdown, but it went through the hands of tight end Harrison Bryant. Two snaps later on third down from the Bengals 11, Bailey leaped to tip a pass ever so slightly and cornerback Mike Hilton, the only defensive starter on the field, kept his concentration and caught the end zone interception.
The skeleton defense couldn't avoid injury in the first half. Making his first Bengals start and 77th of his NFL career, safety Ricardo Allen left with a concussion. Then backup cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III got carted off with an ankle injury, which is why Hilton was in the game. Hargreaves did return in the second half.
The Bengals offense whiffed on its first six third downs with the first two series hampered by a false start and a holding call on right tackle Isaiah Prince. One third down got blown up on the easiest sack of Jadeveon Clowney's career. Allen had pretty good protection, but appeared to step on right guard Hakeem Adeniji's foot. He went down and Clowney just tapped him.
But the Browns treated him more roughly on the first series of the second quarter. On first down, Adeniji failed to pick up blitzing linebacker Jacob Phillips for a crunching seven-yard sack. Then on a third-down screen that didn't make it, Allen got drilled by both Clowney and Garrett, working against Fred Johnson in a rotation at left tackle. Allen limped off the field, but came back.
Then Allen lost 28 yards on a really weird play. They had their best field position of the day at the Cleveland 35, but he tried a play-action bootleg and tight end Drew Sample couldn't block Clowney and Clowney whacked Allen for for a fumble that rolled and rolled, was recovered by the Browns before they fumbled it again and Sample recovered.