Updated: 4:05 p.m.
Before an anxious Paul Brown Stadium sellout that in the end saluted the first division sweep in franchise history, the Bengals stood on the brink of a 6-0 finish in the AFC North when they had a 16-7 lead and the ball at the Browns 49 with 8:48 left in the game.
But as they have all year, the Bengals had to turn to their defense to get the win that lifts them to 8-3 and sets a franchise record with their seventh straight division victory.
But the defense responded by forcing the Browns' eighth punt on a Cincinnati defense that allowed just 142 yards as the clock ticked to three minutes left in the game.
As the crowd of 64,553 let the two-minute warning sink in, the Bengals were in charge of this ugly duckling affair with the beautiful tenacity of the running game that gave them 107 yards from Larry Johnson on 22 carries and 87 more from Bernard Scott on 17 carries. By that time the Bengals had rolled up 198 yards rushing, which will overcome 10 penalties and a punchless passing attack that accounted for just 96 yards.
The Bengals took the 16-7 lead into the fourth quarter riding the fresh legs of Johnson's 84 yards on 15 carries. When converted Browns receiver Mike Furrey knocked away quarterback Carson Palmer's pass to wide receiver Maurice Purify in the last minute of the third quarter, the Bengals settled for Shayne Graham's third field goal of the game, a 28-yarder that made it 16-7.
There was no such inconsistency from the Bengals defense that for the seventh straight game held a team to less than 100 yards rushing to extend a franchise record.
Browns quarterback Brady Quinn's first rushing touchdown of his career cut the lead to 13-7 in the middle of the third quarter.
After getting just 46 total yards and two first downs in the first half, Quinn used a hurry-up offense and a poor Kevin Huber punt to start a 55-yard scoring drive that included his 18-yard catch from wide receiver Josh Cribbs out of the Wildcat formation. Quinn then scored on a nine-yard draw play.
With the Bengals unable to protect Palmer in the passing game against the last-ranked Browns defense, they turned to their running game and their defense to forge a 13-0 halftime lead.
It took the Bengals until there was just 1:10 left in the half to get that touchdown and it came on third down from the Cleveland 4 when Palmer couldn't find his first option, wide receiver Chad Ochocinco, in the back of the end zone. Palmer rolled to his right and saw tight J.P Foschi beating cornerback Hank Poteat across the goal line. It snapped Palmer's longest streak of his career without a touchdown pass at 12 quarters, on his 15th of the season. After getting just two touchdowns in their last nine red-zone trips, the play was badly needed.
The Ocho kept the drive alive on third-and-five with a 15-yard catch on a crossing route that put the Bengals on the brink of the red zone.
The Bengals got a gift field goal with no time left and Graham can thank Browns nose tackle Shaun Rogers for giving him the chance to tie the longest field goal of his career, a 53-yarder after Rogers was called for dragging Palmer down out of the pocket with what looked to be a horse-collar takedown. The unsportsmanlike conduct penalty moved the ball to the Cincinnati 35 for Graham's second field goal of the game and second from 50 or beyond this season on four tries.
The defense made it all possible as it forced the Browns to punt in about 30 seconds to punctuate a half it gave Cleveland just 46 yards, 21 of them on the ground in just 9:50 of possession time. All five possessions ended in a punt.
Meanwhile, with Cedric Benson inactive and Scott needing a breather, Johnson ripped off runs of 10 and 12 yards on his first two carries as the Bengals hogged their first series for 8:48, but only got Graham's 37-yard field goal for the 3-0 lead with 3:04 left in the first quarter. It was a tandem that clicked with Scott rushing for 65 yards on 13 carries and Johnson adding 48 more on six carries in the half as Palmer was rushed to 8-of-15 passing for 52 yards while getting sacked three times.
That matched the season high of sacks allowed last week and in the opener against Oakland.
Scott hobbled of the field on the first series of the second half, but he came back to return a kick with seven minutes left in the third quarter.
Rookie right tackle Andre Smith made his NFL debut on the game's second snap when the Bengals went with right tackle Dennis Roland at tight end. Smith then came off the field after Scott ran left for four yards. Johnson did his damage on the right side behind an unbalanced line that had led left tackle Andrew Whitworth on the right side.
Quinn got the Bengals on the first third down of the game when he hit wide receiver Chansi Stuckey working down the middle against safety Chinedum Ndukwe for a 24-yard gain, but the Bengals got it back on the next third down (a third-and-seven) when nickel back Morgan Trent blitzed untouched from his left side and got his first NFL sack.
The Browns didn't get a first down on their next series. On third-and-1, Bengals defensive linemen Jon Fanene and Frostee Rucker sniffed out a reverse to Browns wide receiver Josh Cribbs going from left to right for no gain, and the Bengals took the 3-0 lead into the first quarter.
Palmer was getting a lot of heat in the pass rush early as Roland had trouble staying in front of outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley. In fact, it was Palmer's 12-yard scramble that set up Graham's first field goal. He had little time in the pocket as the series in the second quarter exemplified.
Larry Johnson kept banging it between the tackles with 46 yards on his first five carries, four of the carries going for a first down, but the passing game was a mess. With Wimbley drilling him on an edge rush, Palmer hurried a throw in the vicinity of The Ocho, but he was called for intentional grounding. Then on third-and-20 Palmer got flushed again even though the Browns rushed just three. And Roland was called for a holding penalty on one of them, Corey Williams.
And the Bengals offensive line started the next series with a penalty, a hold on left guard Nate Livings. But Scott saved the day with a 21-yard run on the next snap when he ran out of the grasp of defensive end Robaire Smith and ran away from cornerback Mike Adams. The Bengals used the play to score the touchdown, a drive that consumed 11 plays for 6:38.
PREGAME NOTES: Opting to rest his sore hip one more week, the Bengals made running back Cedric Benson inactive for the second straight week and started rookie Bernard Scott in his place Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium against the Browns. WILL linebacker Keith Rivers (calf) was down for the third straight week. No. 1 pick Andre Smith was active for the first time this season.
There was no sign of Benson during early pregame warmups, the period when players usually work out to give trainers and doctors an idea if they can go. Wide receiver Laveranues Coles (chest) appeared briefly on the field, caught a few passes from backup quarterback Jordan Palmer, and jogged back into the locker room with no sign of a problem and was active.
The Bengals fear that Benson's type of muscle strain is simlilar to that of a groin or hamstring issue and even when it feels ready it needs more time to heal. Plus, reaggravating it would put him on the shelf longer. Scott is off his first career 100-yard game and a career-high 21 carries and was so worn down at the end of last week's game in Oakland that he couldn't return the crucial kick that wide receiver Andre Caldwell fumbled.
So it's believed that running back Larry Johnson is going to get more than the two carries he received in Oakland. Like Benson, Johnson also has a 100-yard game against the Browns, a 110-yard effort in Cleveland nearly three years to the day (Dec. 3, 2006) on 28 carries in a game the Browns beat the Chiefs in overtime, 31-28.
Smith, hobbled this season by a four-week holdout and broken foot, dressed for the first time in his NFL career. Rookie backup center Jonathan Luigs was made inactive with left guard Evan Mathis healthy and able to back up center Kyle Cook.
Also inactive were fullback Fui Vakapuna, tight end Chase Coffman, wide receiver Jerome Simpson and defensive tackle Orien Harris.
The Bengals took the field in their most successful jerseys, the orange, with white pants. They are 6-2 in that outfit, as well as 3-0 in organge jerseys and black pants. Head coach Marvin Lewis chose to introduce the defensive starters individually, featuring Brandon Johnson's third straight start at WILL backer in place of Rivers. Domata Peko made his 11th straight start of the season at defensive tackle despie spraining the medial collateral ligament in his knee last week.
The Browns won the toss, took the ball, and the Bengals chose to defend the river.
The weather was as expected, game-time temp in the 50s, and a light wind. There was a forecast of showers, but they weren't expected until after the game.
A rare sight in the PBS press box: P.J. Combs, the Bengals assistant director of public relations, missing only his second game in 15 seasons with an illness.