Without injured wide receivers Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow went off script to produce his first win over Cleveland in Sunday's all-hands-on-deck 23-10 victory at packed Paycor Stadium.
Wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase (119 yards on ten catches) checked in with his fourth 100-yard game of the season, wide receiver Trenton Irwin caught Burrow's 45-yard touchdown pass off a flea-flicker, free safety Jessie Bates III had a fourth-quarter interception, rookie cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt knocked down Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson's end-zone pass for one of Cincy's three fourth-down stops and the defense stoned running back Nick Chubb on 2.4 yards per carry and 34 yards, six of them in the second half.
Boyd dislocated his finger on the second snap of the game and never returned and Higgins took the field for only the first play with a hamstring problem that limited him in practice late last week. With tight end Hayden Hurst (calf) already inactive, that meant three of their top four pass-catchers were out.
But Burrow's 18 of 33 passing for 239 yards and a you-don't-know-how-hard-it-was 85.3 passer rating was enough for their fifth straight victory to keep pace with the Ravens atop the AFC North at 9-4 before a delighted 66,222 throng that was the fourth biggest crowd ever at Paycor.
Throw in 17 tackles by Logan Wilson (14 solo) and 96 yards by running back Joe Mixon nearly seven yards per pop as he out-Chubbed Chubb and the script was complete.
The Bengals went up 20-3 with 7:26 left in third quarter when the Browns came on a blitz. They had the perfect call. Burrow handed to Mixon and before he went into the line, he tossed it back to Burrow. With the safety nowhere to be seen, Burrow lofted a 45-yard touchdown pass to wide-open wide receiver Trenton Irwin.
Despite two of their big guns missing, the Bengals kept coming up with big plays. On the next series, Mixon ripped off his biggest run of the year, a 40-yarder down the right sideline with both right tackle La'el Collins and left tackle Jonah Williams pulling and Mixon running through the tackle of linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk.
Then Burrow came back on play-action and hit Chase for 20 yards. The two explosives set up Evan McPherson's 30-yard field goal that made it 23-10 on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Rocked by the injuries, the defense held fast and Burrow danced and dipped and dotted enough to give them a 13-3 halftime lead after McPherson missed his second PAT against the Browns this season.
Burrow finished an uncharacteristic nine of 21 for 110 yards (75.5 passer rating) as he tried to adjust to life without Higgins and Boyd. According to Next Gen Stats, the Bengals are 5-1 (only loss in Dallas) in games Chase and Higgins each played at least 30 snaps off snaps while Burrow has 14 touchdown passes and no interceptions in those six games.
The Browns gifted that first Bengals touchdown drive with four penalties for 58 yards. First they roughed punter Drue Chrisman. Then Browns edge Jadeveon Clowney saw a sack wiped out by end Isaiah Thomas' penalty on illegal use of hands. Then off play-action, Burrow floated a go ball to Chase down the left sideline and cornerback Denzel Ward picked up a 33-yard pass interference penalty.
Then Burrow converted his second third-and-three scramble of the half, the first time either team had been in the red zone all day as the clock ticked under ten minutes in the half. That set up his thread-the-needle 15-yard touchdown pass to Chase with 9:43 left in the half. Chase slanted to the middle of the field from Ward and Burrow gunned it right between Ward and safety John Johnson on Chase's hip for the 7-0 lead.
That extended Burrow's NFL-best 20 straight games with a touchdown pass.
The Bengals defense was downright nasty in the first half, holding Chubb to 28 yards on nine carries and the one time they did get in the end zone, nose tackle D.J. Reader got his right hand up and knocked down his fourth pass in the last three games to force a Cade York chip-shot field goal.
Watson still looked rusty, although he did keep that drive going on a third-and-eight scramble to the sticks. But he competed just eight of 13 passes in the half that included a end-of-half Hail Mary.
Logan Wilson had ten tackles and defensive end Sam Hubbard was all over the yard with a third-and-one stop and a zero-yard stop of Watson in the half and finished with a sack and five tackles.
Then Burrow microwaved a 2:35 touchdown drive with two hellacious third-and-10 conversions. The first one was the longest play of the half, a 35-yarder where Burrow hit Trent Taylor over the middle for the first down and Taylor popped out of a missed tackle for 25 more.
Then on the next third-and-10 from the Browns 19, Burrow got out of the pocket in a hurry with Myles Garrett (two sacks on Sunday) and company coming hard. At about the 15, cornerback Greg Newsome II was in a bad way and he left Trent Irwin to tackle Burrow and Burrow pitched over him to Irwin for 13 yards.
That set up Perine's textbook second-effort-knees-churning-legs-never-stopping-six-yard-touchdown run. He went into the middle of the line and Clowney had him. But he didn't finish and Perine did. He popped out of the middle and swerved to the right outside and walked in.