The Bengals' 2018 took a shot over the middle Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium when the 4-6-1 Browns not only ended their 25-game road losing streak and their seven-game game losing streak in the series, but maybe even the 5-6 Bengals' chances for a playoff spot with the 35-20 loss to Cleveland.
With 12 players already on injured reserve at kickoff, the crushing beat went on. The Bengals watched quarterback Andy Dalton leave with an injured throwing thumb early in the second half, left tackle Jake Fisher late in the first half with a back injury and cornerback Tony McRae with a concussion that saw him wheeled off the field strapped to a board.
Images from the week 12 matchup between the Bengals and Browns in the "Battle of Ohio."
By then, though, the Browns had battered the Bengals in every category. The NFL's last-ranked defense had another rough day at the hands of a rookie quarterback. A week after Ravens rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson gashed them for 117 yards rushing, Mayfield hit 19 of his first 25 passes for 258 yards.
But in that grim second half, the first in the eight seasons of the Green-Dalton Era played without both Dalton and A.J. Green (out with a toe injury), the Bengals got some gritty efforts as they rallied around back-up quarterback Jeff Driskel. A few snaps after he took a cheap shot that negated an end-zone interception, Driskel limped into the end zone on a two-yard touchdown run that cut it 35-20 in the middle of the fourth quarter, a 13-play drive marred by Randy Bullock's missed extra point that book-ended his blocked 54-yard field goal in the first half.
Driskel (17 of 25 for 155 yards) played well and he hooked up with wide receiver Tyler Boyd for his first NFL TD pass, a 28-yard laser over the middle as Boyd took it in stride and shrugged off a tackle at the 10.
Boyd racked up 85 yards on his first seven catches and running back Joe Mixon racked up 89 on 14 carries as well as 66 yards through their air to keep them breathing. Driskel hooked up with running back Giovani Bernard beating a linebacker on fourth-and-six as the clock ticked under four minutes and the Bengals inched into the end zone.
But false starts on each tackle, Cedric Ogbuehi on the left (which negated a first down) and Bobby Hart on the right, and one on center Billy Price, gave them a fourth-and-four from the Browns 12. Driskel overthrew rookie wide receiver Auden Tate on the right sideline covered by cornerback Denzel Ward with 3:09 left and Browns rookie running back Nick Chubb ended it on a 27-yard run over left tackle Greg Robinson. Tough, because the Bengals had checked Chubb all game until that as he finished with 84 yards on 28 carries.
The Bengals out-gained the Browns, but giving up TDs on their first four drives killed them. After the Saints scored on every drive they tried in the last game, the Browns did the same thing in the first half this Sunday when Mayfield hit 17 of his first 21 passes and sifted them for 245 yards on four touchdown drives on their first four possessions to stake Cleveland to a 28-7 halftime lead.
Then tragedy struck when Dalton injured his throwing thumb chasing down a wayward shot-gun snap from center Billy Price on the second half's first series. He lost the battle for the ball inside the 10 to right end Emmanuel Ogbah. He went to the locker room as the Browns jumped to a 35-7 lead when Mayfield hit tight end Darren Fells from six yards out.
It was that same thumb Dalton broke to end his 2015 season.
The Bengals didn't get on the board until 32 seconds left in the first half on Dalton's two-yard touchdown pass over the middle to wide receiver John Ross that was set up by running back Joe Mixon's 32-yard run and Dalton's 21-yard scramble.
But until the last minute of the half, Mixon and the Bengals had less than nothing on the ground with minus-1 yard rushing on five carries and the Browns cashed a Dalton pick for running back Nick Chubb's marvelous 14-yard touchdown catch in tight coverage against safety Brandon Wilson to make it 28-0 with 2:25 left. Dalton, 10 of 17 in the half for 100 yards, was shooting for wide receiver Cody Core on the sidelines, but it was thrown short and more to safety Damarious Randall.
On the ensuing drive Chubb banged it three times from the Bengals 22 and he finally got it on fourth-and-one after surviving head coach Marvin Lewis' challenge of the fourth-down spot.
Chubb was supposed to kill them on the ground, but he had only 30 rushing at the half since it was Mayfield killing them on balls to seven different receivers. But if it wasn't run this week, it was still the same old problem on third down when Mayfield converted five of six and two long ones in the middle of uncovered zones on the drive to go up 21-0. They scored it when tight end David Njoku caught a ball over the middle at about the Bengals 10, avoided middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict's missed tackle and vaulted in a bid to move the ball forward. He jumped into the arms of safety Jessie Bates at about the 5 and basically carried him into the end zone.
How many more injuries could they take? Before the game, left tackle Cordy Glenn was ruled out with a back injury, giving Jake Fisher his first NFL start at left tackle. He was gone by the end of the half with his own back injury and Cedric Ogbuehi was in a game for the second time this year.
By the time Mayfield hit wide-open wide receiver Antonio Callaway with 1:37 left in the first quarter for that 14-0 lead, the Bengals had been penalized in all three phases and had a 54-yard field goal blocked when Myles Garrett came around his right edge for the second block of Bullock this season.
That put the ball at the Browns 44 and for Mayfield on Sunday that was like putting him in a club suite. He got Cleveland a touchdown on four first-down plays and went up 14-0 on that 13-yard pass to Callaway along the back line of the end zone as Mayfield used all seven of those receivers to hit nine of his first ten passes for 122 yards.
Then on the Bengals next series, Mixon got blown up for the second straight series on a four-yard loss, this time when tackle Larry Ogunjobi beat Price. The drive died when Dalton barely overthrew Ross for a touchdown bomb when he beat the corner down the right sideline and tight end C.J. Uzomah led a third-down pass go through his hands.
Their opening drive was almost as ugly after it began with rookie tight end Jordan Franks called for a double-team block on the kickoffs.
The Bengals went for it on fourth and-one and a play action boot to Mixon picked it up for 12 yards to the Browns 35. But then the drive blew up. On the next snap Mixon lost four yards on as zone read to the right and a 12-yard completion to tight end Matt Lengel got wiped out by a hold on running back Giovani Bernard against an all-out blitz. Then on third-and-11 Dalton threw behind Uzomah and Lewis opted to go for the 54-yard field goal a week after Bullock missed a 52-yarder.
Mayfield opened the game hitting his first six passes with stunning ease. The Bengals' pass rush was non-existent on the ten-play drive and that's what happened all day in a game they didn't have a sack. When they did get some penetration on the next drive, Mayfield calmly moved out of the pocket on a four-play drive every snap was a first down.