Browns Hold Off Bengals, 26-18

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Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Jeff Driskel scrambles during the first half of an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

CLEVELAND - The Bengals passing game finally got going late Sunday and a blocked punt by safety Clayton Fejedelem set up a touchdown and two-point conversion that cut the Browns' lead to 26-18 with 2:52 left Sunday.

But it wasn't enough. The Bengals, out of timeouts, opted to kick off rather than on-side it and on the last play before the two-minute warning tight end David Njoku ran through the middle of the field for a 66-yard catch-and-run to seal the victory when safety Jessie Bates went for the interception in the 26-18 loss.

After a rocky start, Browns rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield continued his one-man assault of the Bengals Sunday when he hit 19 of his first 25 passes for three more touchdown passes after he hit them for 19 of 26 and four touchdowns last month in Cincinnati.

This one came as Cleveland built a 26-18 lead in the game's last five minutes against the backdrop of a Bengals' passing game that is in the training room.

Quarterback Jeff Driskel lofted one over wide receiver Alex Erickson's shoulder for a 28-yarder, their longest play of the day. Then after he got a a big pickup on the sideline against the blitz, tight end C.J. Uzomah posted up safety Jabrill Peppers for a 14-yard touchdown catch with 4:56 left in the game.

Fejedelem then blocked the punt at the Cleveland 23 to set up a John Ross TD and Cody Core ended the longest NFL drought for a two-pointer with a catch in the end zone.

After a rocky start, Browns rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield continued his one-man assault of the Bengals Sunday when he hit 19 of his first 25 passes for three more touchdown passes after he hit them for 19 of 26 and four touchdowns last month in Cincinnati.

This one came as Cleveland built a 26-18 lead in the game's last five minutes against the backdrop of a Bengals' passing game that is in the training room. When Randy Bullock hit a 51-yard field goal to get the Bengals on the board on the first play of the fourth quarter, the Bengals had 36 yards passing after the Browns sacked Driskel three times while he was eight of 14 for 62 yards in the first three quarters. They had just 111 total yards.

The game turned into the Joe Mixon Watch. Mixon, the Bengals' Bell Cow running back, came into the game needing five yards for 1,000 and he got enough to end up with the most rushing yards by a Bengal in six years as finished with 68 yards on 17 carries.

The Bengals can only hope this season is an injury-riddled anomaly in the division. The win means the 7-7-1 Browns secure their first season above .500 in the 17 seasons of the AFC North and it also means they'll finish ahead of the 6-9 Bengals for the first time since 2010.

And after winning the 2015 AFC North, the Bengals are 7-10 in division games.

The Bengals battered offense, missing two 1,000-yard wide receivers and their quarterback, just didn't have enough weapons to keep up with the Browns during a first half they mustered 36 yards while falling behind 16-0.

Driskel completed just two of six passes for three yards and two sacks meant they had a total of minus-15 yards in the half. Mixon did get the five yards he needed for 1,000 yards, but it was tough sledding for him with 21 yards on seven carries in the half.

There was just no time or room against Cleveland's stacked boxes and blitzes. Driskel tried three passes to Ross and didn't get a completion and the Bengals went 0-for-five on third down in the half.

But the Bengals defense, looking so bad last month when Mayfield ripped them on Cleveland's first four possessions for 28-0, flipped the script. They were more aggressive in their coverages and tackling and didn't give up a third-down conversion until 10:20 left in the first half.

But the Browns got it scoring the first points of the game when Mayfield lofted a three-yard touchdown pass to tight end David Njoku and he high-pointed the catch over safety Shawn Williams working in one-on-one coverage. It was set up by Mayfield's fourth-and-one dart out of the shotgun and he found wide receiver Jarvis Landry separating from cornerback Darqueze Dennard.

Still, the Bengals defense came out grinding. The longest play of the 13-play drive was running back Nick Chubb's 22-yard rush against a blitz past linebacker Nick Vigil.

Images from the Week 16 matchup as the Bengals face the Cleveland Browns in the "Battle of Ohio."

Mayfield couldn't start his dancing and chattering until he missed five of his first nine passes while amassing 46 yards. He finished the half hitting his next and went into the locker room 14 of 19 for 104 yards.

The Browns didn't waste any time after that first score to go razzle dazzle after putting the Bengals through another miserable three-and-out that was capped by linebacker Genard Avery's sack over the right side and featured Mixon's one-yard loss after a catch.

On Cleveland's next snap, Mayfield orchestrated a double reverse pass and Landry unleashed a left-handed bomb to wide receiver Breshad Perriman racing down the right sideline past Williams for 63 yards. The Browns again went to their massively built tight ends for a touchdown as Mayfield scrambled to the right for a one-yard flip to the 6-7, 270-pound Darren Fells covered by middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson. When Greg Joseph hit the right upright it was 13-0 with 7:12 left in the half.

The offense couldn't answer. As Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham so adroitly observed during the broadcast, the Bengals' loss of all their down-field threats reduced them to playing in a closet. The first play after they went down 13-0, Mixon ripped off a 15-yarder but that went by the boards on the next set of downs when Driskel couldn't hook up with Ross on second and third downs. The first one went through Ross' hands and the second was a little too high for the receiver screen and when he leaped it went off one of his hands and it looked like they were playing in a '57 Chevy

At that point, the Browns just hogged the ball for the half's last 5:02. They kept the Bengals' pass rush at bay by spreading the field and the injuries piled up. WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict went to the locker room in the final two minutes with a concussion after leaving a game three weeks ago with a concussion. Earlier in the half cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick left for good with a shoulder injury.

Dennard came up with a nice stop of Duke Johnson in the middle of the field on third down to force Joseph's 37-yard field goal with 10 seconds left in the half.

Mixon got his 1,000th-yard the hard way on his day's first carry when he bulled for six yards through the middle of a 10-man front and the Bengals got the first down on a fake punt on fourth-and-two when Fejedelem took the short snap up the middle for the first down.

But with Browns crowding the box, the Bengals couldn't convert the next set. On third-and-five, no one picked up blitzing middle linebacker Joe Schobert and Schobert sacked Driskel and dislodged a ball recovered for the Bengals by running back Giovani Bernard.

And on the next possession, Mixon went back under 1,000 yards when the right side of the line got blown up and old friend Chris Smith led the charge for a six-yard loss. Then on the next snap, third-and-long, the right side of the line again crumbled again and Driskel miraculously escaped a sack, but when he scrambled to throw it down field he overthrew wide receiver Cody Core.

On the Browns' first possession, Bengals safety Jessie Bates rallied to stop Duke Johnson one yard shy of a third-down pass at the Cleveland 42 and when the Browns opted to go for it they were called for an illegal shift to force the punt.

Another penalty killed Cleveland's next drive and negated Mayfield's third-and-eight seed to wide receiver Rashard Higgins just over the outstretched hands Kirkpatrick down the sideline for 55 yards. But Higgins was called for pushing off.

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