Now it's up to the kids.
That's what it looks like for the Bengals as they head into the offseason staring at the No. 1 pick with Sunday's jaunty 33-23 victory at drip-dry Paul Brown Stadium. It was fueled by running back Joe Mixon's youthful exuberance and his merry band of youngsters that made the Browns look a bit old and tired after Cleveland ended one of the most disappointing seasons in pro sports of late.
The day belonged to Andy Dalton. But the kids who helped supply Mixon's vicious career-high 162 yards that put him in the same kind of Browns-Killer category as Bengals all-time leading rusher Corey Dillon and the absolute mauling of Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield showed they've put the future on notice. The 23-year-old Mixon got the game ball on offense and 24-year-old cornerback Darius Phillips got the game ball on defense in his second NFL start that produced the first two-interception game by a Bengals cornerback since Dre Kirkpatrick picked Peyton Manning five years ago on a December Monday night to put them in the playoffs.
"A lot of what we put on the field this year is not acceptable for the Bengals," said head coach Zac Taylor, who with two wins had four fewer than former Browns coach Freddie Kitchens, but a lot less drama and more effort. "They know that, they realize that, and I know we have the right guys in that locker room to get us pointed in the right direction."
After Mixon finished off his second career high against the Browns in three weeks, he now is averaging 103 yards on 5.1 per carry in six games against the Browns. At the turn of the century, Dillon's No. 28 wrecked the Browns on 101 yards per 11 games on 5.1 per carry.
"It gets everybody going. It gives you that momentum. Guys love seeing it. Joe runs so hard," Dalton said. "The hits that he takes, and the hits he puts on people, are something that's special to him."
When Mixon bowled over from the Browns 2 to give the Bengals a two-score lead in the first minute of the fourth quarter, the Bengals biggest kid of all scanned the end zone seats for a kid wearing No. 28. Mixon spied a guy with a Mixon sign and gave him the ball. Then he asked for it back when a few seats over he saw a kid wearing a No. 28 jersey.
J.T. Kauffman, 12, of Tulsa, Okla., who has been traveling to watch Mixon play since his days at Oklahoma, put his head down on the railing in tears. Later he and his dad, the guy with the sign, waited for Mixon outside the locker room. It turns out they're acquaintances from Mixon's days in Norman.
"This has been the best thing that's ever happened to me in my life," J.T. Kauffman said.
"I was looking mainly for a kid," Mixon said. "That's my little guy."
This is why J.T. likes Joltin' Joe: "His personality and he's just the best running back in the NFL."
J.T., his mates couldn't agree more.
"Joe, his energy is contagious," said center Trey Hopkins, who in the first game of his three-year extension led the Bengals to season-high 179 rushing yards that they matched three weeks ago in Cleveland. "That passion that he brings, he plays with such heart that you can't help but be affected by it."
Mixon did walk out of the locker room with a ball, but it was the game ball Taylor gave him. He clutched it like he did on that run with three minutes left, a dagger-like 28-yarder that ripped through the heart of the Browns' now-or-never 10-man front. He ran behind rookies like Jordan and left tackle Fred Johnson, knocking over defenders almost like blowing out candles on a cake. The kids did all right up front as the line detonated Mixon and allowed Dalton to get hit just twice and sacked only once.
There's a new core emerging that on paper is to be book-ended by the No. 1 pick and A.J. Green.
In the middle are guys like Mixon, Phillips, guard Michael Jordan, end Sam Hubbard, tag-team partner Carl Lawson and rookie middle linebacker Germaine Pratt. Pratt had one of his best days as a pro, a big man in denying the Browns' Nick Chubb the NFL rushing title as they held him to 41 yards on 13 carries. Pratt set up one of Lawson's two sacks on a blitz as Hubbard and Lawson, second-year and third-year pass rushers, combined for 3.5 sacks and six hits of Mayfield.
"That's the greatest feeling. At the end of the day, to have the coach give me the game ball in front of everybody," Mixon said. "That hasn't happened a lot this year. That means a lot to me.
"I know this team looks up to me. I feel like I'm a vocal leader. I think I'm well-respected in the locker room. I appreciate what my teammates do for me and I try to do the same thing for them."
Mixon says he wants to be a Bengal for life and his second straight 1,000-yard season (he finished with 1,137 yards on 278 carries) is something only Bengals greats have done. Dillon. James Brooks. Rudi Johnson. Cedric Benson. The 278 carries is the most by a Bengals back since BenJarvus Green -Ellis had the same for 1,094 in 2012.
He's also got an attitude that hasn't always been around here and an attitude that is going to be pursued in players they scout in the offseason. A leader-like look-get-out-of-my-way-here-comes-our-team attitude. It's not a goofy, look-at-me deal like Mayfield's histrionics. Or as on the edge as Vontaze Burfict.
But when Mixon hissed to nemesis Greedy Williams, the Browns rookie cornerback, early on, "If you come my way, I'll make you pay," that was as good as any locker room speech. (It looked like the 185-pound Williams took heed because he didn't get near him on Mixon's make-you-miss 41-yarder that gave him 1,000 on his longest run of the season.)
Hubbard also has some of that in his neck.
Remember how Mayfield danced in their faces last year, taking what amounted to victory laps around PBS? On Sunday, when Hubbard split a sack with Carlos Dunlap, former Ohio State teammate Nick Bosa's plant-the-flag-celebration sack of Mayfield flashed through his mind.
Instead he made a quiet O with his arms.
"I gave him an OH," Hubbard said. "Nicky already did it to him. I had to give him something different."
Hubbard lost his duel for the team sack title to one of the veterans, Dunlap, by half a sack. And he was glad because those nine sacks for Dunlap put him within two of Eddie Edwards' Bengals' career sack record of 83.5.
Suddenly, Hubbard's 8.5 sacks give him 14.5 sacks in his first two seasons, .5 more than Dunlap had in his first two seasons.
"We were just rushing. There was no game plan. Straight rushes. Calling some games," Hubbard said. "Carlos pulling a tackle on a game and getting me a sack. I was hoping Carlos would get the record. He's got next year."
So does Lawson, who looked to be rounding back into his rookie form of 8.5 sacks in 2017. A torn ACL wiped out half of last season and it took the first half of this season to find his legs. On Sunday he had his first two-sack game since his infamous 2.5 sacks of Aaron Rodgers in the third game of his career. In finishing with five sacks, Lawson had three in the last four games he also hit the quarterback 14 times.
The kids have been having some fun.
Lawson was having fun about the ball Mayfield rifled into his stomach in the middle of the field as he worked against wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr.
And dropped it.
What wasn't funny for the Browns is that they really struggled to decipher Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo's version of the zone blitz with Lawson and Hubbard wreaking havoc in both the passing lanes and on the edge.
"I knew he was going to run the end route, so I played it and came back on," Lawson said with a laugh as he joked. "He's like a $55 million receiver, and I locked him up man-to-man. I just didn't finish. That's what separates the great DB's from the ordinary ones, is the picks."
But he's deadly serious about having a much bigger year in 2020.
"Just having an offseason healthy. I wasn't fully healthy at camp, and then I tried to get back to who I was and there were ups and downs," Lawson said. "Like I said, we were playing from behind in games. I'm not making excuses, but that's what it is. I'm blessed and thankful I get to go into the offseason healthy. I can train instead of trying to figure out how to walk and run again."
Phillips, the fifth-round cornerback from 2018, had played just 56 snaps coming into Sunday, when he got his first start of the season with William Jackson III on injured reserve. His play had been so remarkably productive despite losing eight games in the guts of the season to knee surgery that profootballfocus.com had him charted as leading the league allowing just one catch on six targets in 36 coverage snaps.
He was tested a lot more than that Sunday against Mayfield's Pro Bowl receivers, Beckham and Jarvis Landry, but Phillips gave as good as he got with those two interceptions that gave him a team-leading four despite logging only about 100 snaps. Beckham toasted him twice, but Phillips got him back when Mayfield overthrew Beckham and Phillips kept running like he was the receiver and caught it over his shoulder.
That's what Phillips does better than any Bengals corner. Tracking the ball.
And not just now. The last Bengals corner to have four interceptions was Leon Hall in 2010.
Of course they talked because that's what OBJ does.
"We're football players. We talk. He's a great receiver. He's been doing it a long time," Phillips said. "When he stopped running, I kept going and tracked the ball. I used to play wide receiver and I think that's helped me a lot."
He lost a fourth-down fling when Mayfield gunned it up on fourth-and-20 looking for Beckham leaping over Phillips. That's exactly what he did in one of those plays you'll see on a commercial. Fourth-and-20. Should never happen.
"My fault. I let him get behind me," Phillips said. "I tried to jump, but I jumped off only my back foot and you don't get as vertical as you can jumping off both feet. I've seen him do it before. He's got big hands and he was jumping off both feet. That's what I have to do. Jump with both feet."
Phillips didn't need his feet for Sunday's first pick. It sounded like he used his brain as they deployed in a Cover Two zone.
"The running back flared into the flat. I saw the receiver (Landry) do a curl," Phillips said. "I baited him like I was going to the flat and he threw it to the receiver and I just jumped it."
Like Lawson, Phillips is just looking for health. Look what he did in a season he missed with knee surgery. Like Phillips, Lawson can barely wait. The kids could play next week.
"It's very exciting. I don't know what the future holds. I don't know the plan. But it's very exciting to go out there and have fun together," Lawson said.
Then he had to laugh.
"I'm going to work on my catching, because I dropped a pick," he said.
It's up to the kids now.