CLEVELAND — In a swirling wind in excess of 20 miles per hour Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium, the Bengals saw their playoff hopes blown into the critical stage when the winless Browns exploded for a 27-3 run in the first 22 minutes of the second half that gave them a 34-24 victory.
As the skies opened with a downpour, it seemed even the heavens were about to acknowledge the end of the Browns 11-game losing streak and 12 in the AFC North when Browns cornerback Sheldon Brown sat on slot receiver Brandon Tate's slant route and picked it off for a 19-yard touchdown return for Cleveland's second of quarterback Andy Dalton's three picks that gave Cleveland a 34-17 lead with 7:50 left in the game.
The Bengals cut it to 34-24 when Dalton hit wide receiver A.J. Green for a 57-yard touchdown as Dalton hit him running past cornerback Joe Haden with 5:21 left in the game for the first multi-TD game of Green's career.
But it was too little too late to stave off the nightmare scenario as the Bengals fell to 3-3, 1-2 in the AFC North.
The coup de grace came when Dalton had tight end Jermaine Gresham open in the end zone in the red zone with 2:39 left in the game, but with the defensive line able to tee off, Emmanuel Stephens rode off left tackle Andrew Whitworth, hit Dalton from the blind side and he lost the fumble, one of four Cincinnati's turnovers that made the Bengals minus in turnovers for the fourth time this season.
With backup running back Montario Hardesty doing damage (56 yards on his first 15 carries of the season) in place of injured rookie Trent Richardson (rib), he gouged the Bengals up the middle and that set up a 23-yard play-action throw to tight end Jordan Cameron in which rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden had all day to throw. That set up up Weeden's three-yard touchdown throw to wide-open tight end Benjamin Watson to make it 27-17 with eight minutes left as Weeden rung up a 92.7 passer rating on a 231-yard day he had two touchdowns and one interception while his protection gave the NFL sack leaders just two.
The Bengals couldn't take advantage of heading with the wind in the third quarter and instead got blown away with a 13-0 run capped by Hardesty's one-yard touchdown run on the first play of the fourth quarter that gave the Browns a 20-14 lead.
The Bengals offense was virtually invisible in the quarter with a punt, punt, interception and punt on four possessions and were strapped when they lost third down back Brian Leonard with a rib injury that left the Bengals with just two running backs. The Bengals couldn't get any traction in the run game (76 yards on 20 carries) against an undermanned run defense and they are only averaging 3.4 yards per run for the season.
They did get a 44-yard field goal from Mike Nugent that cut the lead to 20-17 with 11:11 left in the game, but the Bengals afternoon-long penchant for coming up with big penalties robbed that drive when Green's completion was negated when he was called for offensive pass interference. It was one of seven penalties for 50 yards.
The Bengals' fourth-best punt cover team in the NFL got burned early in the second half when gunner Jeromy Miles seemed to think that Browns punt returner Josh Cribbs singaled fair catch inside his own 10 on the left sideline and ran past him. But Cribbs ran through linebackers Roddrick Muckelroy and Manny Lawson on the way to a 60-yard return that set up Phil Dawson's 41-yard field goal into the wind that cut the lead to 14-10 with 8:25 left in the third.
Then on the next series Dalton made an ill-advised throw as he was chased out of the pocket on a cornerback blitz and running back Cedric Peerman got tied up in pass protection. Peerman was playing on third down with Leonard out and added a career-high eight catches for 76 yards.
Dalton tried to throw to Green on the sideline, but he was plastered by cornerback Buster Skrine and when the ball bounced off Green's hands Haden grabbed it at the Bengals 30. A third-down sack by Bengals left end Robert Geathers forced another Dawson field goal, this one from 38 yards with 6:27 left in the third quarter that cut the lead to 14-13.
BENGALS TAKE LEAD AT THE HALF
The Bengals and Browns traded big-play touchdowns before Dalton lofted a four-yard touchdown to Green into the wind on the first play after the two-minute warning to give Cincinnati a 14-7 halftime lead.
After wide receiver Brandon Tate popped a punt return for 32 yards, running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis woke up an absent rushing attack when he bolted through blocks by left guard Clint Boling and center Jeff Faine for his longest run as a Bengal on a 20-yarder that put the ball on the Cleveland 7-yard line.
On second down Dalton pulled off a play-action fake and dropped a four-yarder over the head of middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson as Green ran right to left along the back of the end zone for his fifth straight game with a touchdown catch.
But it should have been 17-7 after the Bengals came up with yet another stop of the Browns and Richardson to force their fourth punt of the first half to give the Bengals the ball at the Cincinnati 24 with 1:22 left. After driving to the Cleveland 16 when Dalton threw a 25-yard completion to Green with 11 seconds left, the Bengals let about 12 seconds slip away before the second snap of the drive and Dalton didn't get his spike down in time to stop the clock and get a Nugent field-goal try.
But even though it looked like there was one second left on the clock, the officials waved the players into the locker rooms on a play that is apparently not reviewable.
Struggling on third down, the Bengals turned to tight end Jermaine Gresham on their second third down of the game and got a physical 55-yard touchdown catch and run on third–and-two to give them a 7-0 lead with 7:07 left in the first quarter.
The Bengals came into the game 7-for-34 on third down in their last three games and missed a third-and-three on their first series when Dalton faked a handoff and rolled to the right and couldn't connect with the other tight end Orson Charles.
But on his second third-down shot, Dalton delivered the ball quickly as Gresham cleanly broke off the line wide open and when 229-pound linebacker Craig Robertson closed in on him, the 260-pound Gresham stiff-armed him away and he took it down the middle for the longest reception of his three-year NFL career. When Haden tried to catch him inside the 5, Gresham dragged him into the end zone.
The score came courtesy of a turnover forced by the Bengals defensive line. With the Browns driving on their first series of the game and reaching the edge of the red zone the line came up with Cincinnati's second interception of the season when tackle Geno Atkins knocked down a Weeden pass and right end Michael Johnson caught the carom lugged it a few yards to the Bengals 37 to go along with the interception he had last season in Cleveland.
Leading 7-0, Dalton and Gresham had a chance to burn the Browns again on the next series on third down. Gresham was wide open down the left sideline and they missed. It was a catchable ball, but it was also high.
And the Bengals defense couldn't control the Browns on third down early. The Browns converted five of their first six and one came after a false start on Browns left tackle Joe Thomas that made it third-and-eight from the Browns 29 on the first play of the second quarter. That's when Weeden tied it at seven when he hooked up with fellow rookie, wide receiver Josh Gordon, for a 71-yard touchdown pass as Gordon wooshed past safety Reggie Nelson on a post pattern through what appeared to be a zone.
Rookie Josh Cooper, just called up from the practice squad, got past cornerback Terence Newman for 28 yards on third-and-seven on the first series that got tripped up by Johnson's interception.
But on the third down before Gordon's touchdown, it looked like cornerback Leon Hall had Cooper lined up for a tackle short of the first down on the right sideline. But Hall undercut the pass route and Cooper scooted away for an 11-yard gain that kept the drive going.
Despite working against rookie defensive tackles and a rookie linebacker, the Bengals had a tough time mounting anything sustained. Green caught his first ball early in the second quarter and even though it only went for six yards, it was a great catch because he ripped an interception away from cornerback Buster Skrine.
The drive got blown up when Dalton and Green were called for an illegal shift on one snap and Whitworth was called for a hold on another.
The Bengals running game could get nothing going against a banged-up defense that allowed 243 yards on the ground against the Giants last week. Green-Ellis had just 22 yards on his first eight carries and with about seven minutes left in the first half the Bengals tried to get it going again on first and second downs, but BJGE could only get a yard. On second down Faine couldn't reach rookie defensive tackle Billy Winn, and the drive died when Boling was called for a false start.
But Green-Ellis's big run gave him 45 yards on 10 carries in the first half compared to Richardson's 31 yards on 11 carries. Dalton had a 137 passer rating in the half (13-for-18 for 163 yards and two scores) while Weeden was at 91 on 9-of-14 for 139 yards.
PREGAME NOTES: Bengals No. 1 pick Dre Kirkpatrick won't make his NFL debut Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium, but 2011 third-round pick Dontay Moch made his.
Moch, a defensive/SAM backer sidelined by a foot injury and headaches as a rookie, was active for the first time in his career and got some third-down snaps, some inside at tackle.
Kirkpatrick, who returned to practice last week after dealing with a bone spur near his knee that knocked him out of the preseason, joined Jason Allen as cornerbacks not active against the Browns. Allen (quad) has missed five of the season's six games.
After not being active last week, Marvin Jones got the call and fellow rookie receiver Mohamed Sanu sat for the first time since he opened the third game of the year at quarterback. Jones drew a pass interference call in the first game against the Browns when he picked up a 31-yarder on cornerback Buster Skrine.
Wide receiver Ryan Whalen and tight end Richard Quinn have yet to be active this season and rookie safety George Iloka and rookie defensive tackle Brandon Thompson sat for the second straight game.
Head coach Marvin Lewis let it known how big he saw this game when his game captains were veterans considered to be the leaders of the offense, defense and special teams, as well as key players in what is considered to be a game focused on the run: Left tackle Andrew Whitworth, tight end Jermaine Gresham, defensive tackle Domata Peko, left end Robert Geathers, and linebacker Dan Skuta.
Gresham is viewed as a key blocker in the run game, as well as a favorable matchup in the pass game against the Browns linebackers and safety T.J. Ward, playing with a cast on his hand.
The Browns look to have a bevy of problems stopping the run. After giving up 243 yards on the ground last week against the Giants, they have an interior line rotation of three rookies because their top interior lineman is nursing a calf injury. Dating back to 2010, Ahtyba Rubin has led NFL tackles in tackles but was inactive Sunday. Their most seasoned linebacker, SAM Scott Fujita, was also out and that elevated another rookie to start, Ironically, like Moch, James-Michael Johnson is out of Nevada, and arrived via the fourth round this season.
As advertised, the wind came in blowing off Lake Erie with the forecast for gusts up to 40 miles per hour. About an hour before the game it was swirling at 21 miles per hour.