CLEVELAND - After leaping to a 20-0 half-time lead Sunday, the Bengals got into a second half tussle with the Browns and let winless Cleveland crawl within 10 points with 14:14 left in the game before Mike Nugent hit a 44-yard field goal with 8:38 left and running back Jeremy Hill finished off his second 100-yard game of the season in a 23-10 victory.
Hill, who had a career-high 168 yards against the Browns earlier in the season, took the clock to the two-minute warning with 111 yards on 24 carries. Like they did back in October, the Bengals rushed for 200 yards, this time for 213 with running back Rex Burkhead's career-high 45 yards.
The Bengals jacked it back to 23-10 with 8:38 left when the struggling Nugent delivered. After missing his sixth extra point of the season and a 36-yard field goal attempt in the first half, Nugent hit a 39-yarder to make it 23-10. But right tackle Eric Winston false started and forced Nugent to kick a 44-yarder.
The kick came after the Bengals offense sputtered again. Quarterback Andy Dalton scrambled for a first down to the Browns 20, but wide receiver Brandon LaFell was called for a hold to wipe it out. Then on third-and-one Dalton went play-action, but Browns rookie defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah didn't buy it and was all over him and forced him to throw it incomplete to tight end Tyler Eifert to bring on Nugent.
But back-to-back sacks by Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins got the ball back with 5:55 left in the game and ended all doubt the Bengals would go to 5-7-1 and continue to hang by a strand in the AFC North.
It was supposed to be the Bengals running game that stole Sunday's show and they did rack up 152 rushing yards heading into the fourth quarter. But after backup quarterback Kevin Hogan gashed them for 104 yards back in October, Browns running back Isaiah Crowell gouged them for 113 yards on 10 carries.
The Browns hadn't scored a touchdown against the Bengals at Cleveland Browns Stadium since 2013 and it took the Browns nearly seven minutes into the second half to break the skein. After blanketing the Browns in the first half on 72 yards, Crowell got 42 yards on one shot, a draw play that set up quarterback Robert Griffin III's one-yard touchdown run to cap an 80-yard drive with 8:11 left in the third quarter.
Then after an unnecessary roughness call on tight end Tyler Eifert making a block on the perimeter blew up the Bengals' next drive, the Bengals defensive line got out of its gaps again and Crowell converted a third-and-one for 30 yards up the middle to set up Cody Parkey's field goal that cut it to 20-10.
Two Dalton red-zone touchdown passes to tight end Tyler Eifert gave the Bengals a 20-0 half-time lead. And it should have been 24-0 because Nugent's problems continued amid the spitting snowflakes with another missed extra point and he sent a 36-yard field-goal try wide right as the first half ended.
When Griffin got the ball back with 5:05 left in the half after Dalton zipped a third-down pass for a five-yard touchdown to Eifert beating cornerback Tramon Williams Sr. over the middle, he had a passer rating of 0 and that's how the first half ended.
The touchdown was set up when the Browns were backed up on their two-yard line and head coach Hue Jackson came up with a flea-flicker in the end zone. Griffin threw it to the heavens just to get something, but three Bengals blanketed wide receiver Terrelle Pryor Sr., and safety George Iloka came down with the interception and ran it 21 yards to the Browns 26.
It was the 15th interception of the season for the Bengals after they came into the game tied for second in the NFL. It was also the only target in the half for Pryor, the Browns' leading receiver. H finished with just one catch for three yards on three targets.
Two runs by Hill accounted for 12 yards and a seven-yard pass to him in the flat picked up seven more to set up Eifert's second score. The conditions made it a Hill kind of day and he went for 52 yards on 11 carries for a 4.7 average in the half. Rookie wide receiver Tyler Boyd also had a day in the first half, catching five balls for 45 yards and adding three runs for 40 more.
After leading the Bengals to a 29-0 lead last week against the Eagles on his season-best 139 passer rating, Dalton finished the half at 132 on 14 of 18 passing for 126 yards and 112.2 for the game on 20 of 28 for 180 yards.
Griffin could do nothing in his first appearance since the opener when the Bengals allowed him to complete just two of ten passes in the half and 12 of 28 for the game for just 104 yards and a 38.4 passer rating.
The Bengals beat Jackson to the gadgets when Dalton handed it to Hill out of the shotgun running to the right and Hill then tossed it to Boyd coming across left and Boyd followed pulling Winston for a 39-yard run that was the Bengals' longest run since Hill ripped off a 74-yard touchdown run against these Browns in the Oct. 23 victory in Cincinnati.
That set up Dalton's 14-yard touchdown pass to Eifert off play-action as Eifert beat linebacker Demario Davis slanting across the middle to give the Bengals a 7-0 lead just 2:39 into the game.
Boyd, the NFL leader among rookies with third-down catches did it again on third-and-four just before his run when he caught an eight-yard slant for the first down in front of linebacker Jamie Collins.
Then Boyd did it two more times in the next drive, the big one a sliding catch all by himself outside the numbers on third-and-nine. Boyd had picked up 10 across the middle on the previous snap facing a second-and-19 courtesy of a sack by linebacker Cam Johnson running past Winston.
But Winston anchored Hill's 11-yard run in the red zone where he and right guard Kevin Zeitler pulled and LaFell also added a big block. That set up Hill's one-yard touchdown run (with Cedric Ogbuehi as the extra offensive lineman) to give the Bengals a 13-0 lead after two possessions.
Nugent then missed his sixth extra point of the season off a high snap. It was the first mistake in his three games by emergency long snapper Tyler Ott.
Griffin got his first shot and it wasn't pretty, a three-and-out helped along by a false start on cornerback Adam Jones' favorite wide receiver, Terrelle Pryor. The drive began when defensive lineman Margus Hunt buried wide receiver Ricardo Louis at the Cleveland 16 on the kickoff on a play the Browns were also hit with a back-the-block penalty.
The Browns did get a first down, but only on Griffin's fourth-and-one sneak at his own 21 as Jackson gambled early and why not often at 0-12?
Griffin was looking deep, but the Bengals were giving him nothing. Even when it wasn't there he tried to fling it, which he did with a high, hanging 60-yarder, but safety Shawn Williams was right there with rookie wide receiver Corey Coleman and he knocked it down.
After scoring on those first two drives, the Bengals sputtered. Rookie wide receiver Cody Core let a third-down pass slip through his hands to force the first punt and the next series died on third-and-five when the Browns blitzed Collins and covered up Eifert as the first option. Collins and defensive end Jamie Meder split the sack, the third of Dalton in the half.
Earlier in the drive rookie defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah used good coverage in the back end to record his third sack of the season against Dalton. In the last drive of the half, Ogbah shot through a gap in the interior for another sack. The Browns came into the game with just 17 sacks, but went into halftime with four and that was it for the game.
PRE-GAME SNAPS: Long snapper Clark Harris missed his third straight game Sunday when the Bengals opted to put Tyler Ott into the 27-degree AFC North grind job at Cleveland Browns Stadium
Harris (groin) joined the five injured players on the inactive list with rookie guard Christian Westerman. That meant rookie quarterback Jeff Driskekl was active for the first time this season. On a day that began spitting snow, the Bengals had one more wide receiver active (four) than quarterbacks.
Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green (hamstring) was inactive for the third straight game and while he didn't work out before Sunday's game he made the trip and there is some optimism that he'll be ready to play next week against Pittsburgh at Paul Brown Stadium.
Also out were backup wide receiver James Wright (knee), rotational defensive lineman Wallace Gilberry (calf), backup tight end C.J. Uzomah, and backup safety Derron Smith (calf).
Cincinnati Bengals travel to take on the Cleveland Browns in week 14 of the regular season 12/11/2016