Thursday night's Battle of Ohio at Paul Brown Stadium turned into a shocking one-sided brawl when the young and rebuilding Browns outplayed the AFC North defending champion Bengals in every facet and took a 24-3 victory that decisively knocked Cincinnati out of first place and ended the 14-game home unbeaten streak.
Quarterback Andy Dalton and his offense looked to be in a daze as they continue to be plagued by prime-time implosions. They came out in the first half and committed two turnovers, two holding calls and couldn't budge a Cleveland defensive line ranked 30th against the run and were roundly booed by the 65,871, the largest crowd of the season.
The Bengals unveiled another prime-time egg as Dalton missed 18 of his first 25 passes and that included an interception on the first series that set up the Browns' first touchdown and two interceptions in the fourth quarter. One was thrown inaccurately to wide receiver Greg Little and the other was a contested deep ball that cornerback Buster Skrine ripped away from rookie wide receiver James Wright.
The final pick came with seven minutes left in the game and at that point the Browns had 340 yards to the Bengals' 158 while the crowd chanted the name of the Browns quarterback. "Brian Hoyer. Brian Hoyer."
Hoyer led the 6-3 Browns to their first road division victory since Derek Anderson bested Ryan Fitzpatrick here in September of 2008 and has put his improbable team in a tie for first place with the Steelers. The 5-3-1 Bengals are gasping in the take-no-prisoners North. Five of their last seven are on the road and they don't return to PBS until Dec. 7 to play, naturally, the Steelers.
It was as unsteady as Dalton has ever looked. He finished with career lows in passer rating (2.0), completion percentage (10-33), and passing yards (86) for an entire game. With five minutes left in the game, Dalton went to the bench, as did wide receiver A.J. Green, with three catches for 23 yards. Rookie running back Jeremy Hill, the 154-yard rusher of four days ago, had 55 yards on 12 carries.
The Bengals had no answers as both lines got pushed all the way back up I-71 by a Cleveland team that couldn't run the ball or stop the run in the previous three games and they did it all against Cincinnati.
After averaging 1.9 yards per carry while never gaining 70 yards in any of the three previous games, the Browns pounded the Bengals for 170 yards on 52 carries.
On the first series of the second half Dalton was sacked on back-to-back plays by defensive lineman Desmond Bryant, the first one working against right tackle Marshall Newhouse playing in place of the injured Andre Smith, and the second one came up the middle.
It didn't get much better on the next series. They did break an 0-for-9 drought on third down (they were 3-for-17 for the game), but Dalton had two passes tipped at the line of scrimmage and Green, stalked by nemesis cornerback Joe Haden, dropped two passes in the drive.
The two series summed up what turned out to be the third woeful outing in a month, starting with the 43-17 loss in New England Oct. 6 and the 27-0 loss Oct. 19 in Indianapolis.
Meanwhile, Hoyer staked his club to a 24-3 lead midway through third quarter with methodical efficiency. He corked off a 10-play drive in which the biggest play was a 28-yard pass to his backup tight end Gary Bainbridge off play-action that he dropped over safety Reggie Nelson at the Bengals 3. Running back Terrance West scored from one yard out to make it 24-3 with 4:46 left in the third quarter.
Hoyer finished with a 92.3 passer rating on 15 of 23 for 198 yards and he did it without any of his playmaking receivers. His Pro Bowl tight end, Jordan Cameron had a concussion, his leading wide receiver, Andrew Hawkins, was inactive with injuries, and his Pro Bowl wide receiver, Josh Gordon, is suspended.
Trailing 7-3, the Bengals' drive never got going when Newhouse was called for holding end Jabaal Sheard and on second-and-18 Dalton was reduced to throwing the ball into the turf when the Browns had a screen scoped out.
On third-and-18 Dalton could only hit a six-yard dump pass to Hill and when it rains and pours. After a high snap, punter Kevin Huber could get off only a 25-yard punt and the Browns went on a march with their revived running game. Hoyer got a big 22-yard pass to wide receiver Travis Benjamin before Isaiah Crowell scored on a two-yard touchdown run to make it 14-3 three minutes into the second quarter.
The Bengals then committed their second turnover of the game when Hill had a 13-yard run up the middle and safety Tashaun Gipson got his helmet on the ball to force a fumble at the Browns 28 that was recovered by Haden.
When the Bengals got the ball back, they couldn't take advantage of a second-and-two when Sheard penetrated the left side and dumped running back Cedric Peerman for a three-yard loss to blow up another drive. This by a defense allowing 4.8 yards per carry.
Meanwhile, Hoyer kept handing the ball off and when he wasn't, he was going after a secondary that had Dre Kirkpatrick replacing cornerback Leon Hall in nickel packages. Billy Cundiff's 32-yard field goal with 3:59 left in the half was set up when rookie free agent Taylor Gabriel, starting for Hawkins, made a diving catch in front of Kirkpatrick for 15 yards.
Hoyer didn't have Cameron, but no problem. He hit Bainbridge over the middle for 18 yards as he finished the half 10 of 16 for 119 yards.
The Bengals managed to cut the lead to 7-3 because of a special teams turnover.
The second series featured wide receiver Mohamed Sanu and fullback Ryan Hewitt colliding in motion on second down and on third-and-two the Browns blew up Hill to force the punt.
After Little was called for head butting at the end of the play, Huber got off a 60-yard punt and rookie wide receiver James Wright forced a fumble that was recovered by safety Shawn Williams at the Cleveland 30.
But Dalton, who missed seven of his first eight passes, badly over threw tight end Jermaine Gresham on a simple crossing pattern and they were still at fourth-and-10 when head coach Marvin Lewis eschewed a field goal because of the wind. The Bengals got the first down at the 19 when cornerback Buster Skrine was called for pass interference on Sanu.
But Dalton couldn't hit Sanu a few snaps later when he was open in the end zone and on back-to-back plays they were hit with flags for an illegal substitution and Dalton's illegal pass when he didn't realize he had gone past the line of scrimmage.
Nugent then mercifully came on to kick a 43-yard field goal that cut the Browns' lead to 7-3 with 6:18 left in the first quarter.
The Bengals wasted no time making the first turnover just two minutes into the game and it translated into Cleveland jumping to a 7-0 lead less than five minutes into the game.
After Dalton was forced to take timeout on second-and-10 from his own 30 amid confusion, he went for Gresham over the middle but he apparently thought Gresham was to keep going. But when he stopped, linebacker Craig Robertson was there waiting and he returned it to the Bengals 18.
From there the Browns brutal running game now revived had no problem getting into the end zone in a five-play drive that was all runs. Defensive lineman Wallace Gilberry pushed back Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas into West, but there was nobody beyond the line of scrimmage for a four -yard gain to the 1 that set up Ben Tate's touchdown.
At the end of the first quarter, Bengals vice president Katie Blackburn presented a check for more than $1.3 million to Cincinnati Children's Hospital with Leah Still looking on and waving to a cheering crowd. The daughter of Bengals defensive lineman Devon Still, four-year-old Leah has become the national face of pediatric cancer and the check is the result of supporters buying Still's jersey at the Bengals Pro Shop.
PREGAME NOTES The Bengals injury list stayed the same for Thursday night's game against the Browns at Paul Brown Stadium, but they didn't see old friend Andrew Hawkins.
It was a chilly 40ish degree night on the river where players and coaches were trying to decipher winds estimated at 25 miles per hour.
Hawkins, the former Bengals wide receiver, didn't pass Browns head coach Mike Pettine's pre-game test and he was inactive with his thigh and knee injuries.
With Pro Bowl tight end Jordan Cameron (concussion) also out, the Browns are really hurting on offense and started college free agent rookie Taylor Gabriel in Hawkins' spot. Hawkins came in as Cleveland's leading receiver with 39 catches, but Gabriel is a speedster who has made some plays. He's averaging 19.2 yards per his 21 catches and has a 70-yarder.
But the Bengals are hurting on defense, too. As expected, the Bengals iced cornerback Leon Hall (concussion) and started Adam Jones in his place. It's believed they'd have to start rookie Darqueze Dennard in Hall's slot positon even though he's nursing a hamstring injury that kept him out of last week's game.
And for the second straight week, newly arrived Nico Johnson started in place of middle linebacker Rey Maualuga (hamstring) and veteran backup Vincent Ray started in place of WILL backer Vontaze Burfict (knee).
The Bengals started at right tackle like they finished Sunday's game and put Marshall Newhouse in place of Andre Smith, inactive with an ankle injury.
With Hall out, Adam Jones didn't return the opening kick when the Browns deferred.