CLEVELAND -- Quarterback Joe Burrow and his Bengals offense never found its footing on a rain-streaked field here in Sunday's NFL opener owned by the Browns, 24-3.
The timing just wasn't there as Burrow, who returned to practice two weeks after just two training camp workouts, was held to a career-low 82 yards. When Jake Browning replaced him with about five minutes left, it marked the first time Burrow had never thrown for 100 yards in a start. Working against the most accurate passer in the all-time rankings, the Browns held Burrow to 14 of 31 passing. Coming into the game, Burrow had averaged 295 yards against Cleveland, the most ever in five games or more against the Browns.
The Bengals defense kept them in the game as long as they could, but they were on the field 11 minutes longer than the Browns' time of possession and were down as Cleveland cracked the 200-yard rushing barrier (206). Rookie punter Brad Robbins worked 10 times in his NFL debut, averaging 40.9 yards per punt. He was one shy of the team single-game record of 11.
Evan McPherson cut the lead to 10-3 on the Bengals' first series of the second half with a 42-yard field goal and safety Dax Hill's first NFL interception on Watson's roll-out pass gave them a shot to tie the game with the ball at the 50. With the Browns bringing the heat, Burrow and wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase converted a third-and-two, but three plays later the offense faced a third-and-four from the Browns' 33 and a deep ball to Higgins down the right sideline was knocked away by safety Grant Delpit.
McPherson, perfect in the preseason, went wide right from 51 yards. Higgins had no catches on eight targets, the first time he had been blanked since his rookie year finale in 2020 when he got hurt on the first series,
The Bengals offense spent the first half trying to find its sea legs and fell behind, 10-0. Seven drives. Seven punts. Five three-and-outs. Burrow had just 36 yards passing on six of 14, the worst half of his 43 NFL starts. With the Browns all over his receivers against a good pass rush, Burrow's longest pass was 12 yards to Chase on a sideline out. That came on the game's first drive and was their only third-down conversion of the half as they missed on their last seven. It stood up as the longest.
Their best drive came on four straight runs and halfback Joe Mixon got 34 on two of them. They found themselves looking at third-and-three from the Cleveland 38. Burrow took a shot to wide receiver Tee Higgins working on cornerback Denzel Ward down the right sideline and Higgins leaped over him but could only get one hand on the ball.
It was the first time the Bengals had been blanked in a first half since last Halloween night here in a 32-13 loss.
The Bengals defense kept them in the game. They were able to keep Cleveland out of the end zone until 17 seconds left in the half. Watson's best ball of the game came on third-and-10 as the clock ticked to a minute. Edge Trey Hendrickson (who would later have one of three Bengals sacks) dropped into coverage and wide receiver Amari Cooper was able to get away from cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt for the first down. Then from the Bengals' 13 Watson sent four receivers to the right and ran a draw to the right untouched for the half's only touchdown.
With the Browns driving, Bengals cornerback Chidobe Awuzie made a triumphant return to the field where he tore his ACL Halloween night. Late in a scoreless first quarter, Chubb ran Cleveland to the doorstep of the red zone after safety Nick Scott ranged into the end zone to knock away Watson's bomb for Olympic sprinter Marquise Goodwin. Then it was linebacker Germaine Pratt up to his old tricks, as he ripped the ball from backup running back Jerome Ford and when the ball popped out at the Bengals' 13, Awuzie grabbed it.