Desperately trying to stay in the AFC North race, the Bengals found themselves in another second-half hole, but the Cinderella Kids struck at midnight again when Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton coolly hung in the pocket on third-and-eight with 58 seconds left and hit rookie wide receiver A.J. Green on a spectacular 51-yard catch that set up Mike Nugent's 26-yard field goal with 38 seconds left for a 23-20 victory over the Browns.
Green went high to snatch the ball in front of cornerback Joe Haden and raced to the two-yard line as the 7-4 Bengals secured their fifth fourth-quarter victory of the season. Dalton got his fourth fourth-quarter win on 21-of-31 passing for 270 yards.
With the Bengals headed to Pittsburgh for next Sunday's 1 p.m. game, they still hold the AFC's sixth seed.
The Bengals got the shot when Browns kicker Phil Dawson missed his first 50-yarder of the season from 55 yards with 1:51 left when then the snap was low, making the kick about 10 yards short.
Dawson nailed his seventh 50-yard field goal of the season, a 54-yarder that made it 20-10 with 3:54 left in the third quarter.
But as has been his M.O., Dalton rallied the Bengals and cut the lead to 20-17 on back-to-back throws that netted 57 yards as the Bengals finally went deep against Cleveland's Cover 2 zone before 48,260 at Paul Brown Stadium.
Green went one-on-one with Haden down the right sideline and Green came back on an underthrown ball for a 35-yard catch. On the next snap tight end Jermaine Gresham was the widest receiver isolated on safety Eric Hagg and Gresham made like Green, out-jumping Hagg for a 22-yard touchdown catch with 1:22 left in the third quarter.
It was Dalton's 16th touchdown pass of the season, breaking Greg Cook's 42-year-old Bengals rookie record.
Then it was the defense's turn to get the Bengals the 20-20 tie. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who just never stops, drilled Browns quarterback Colt McCoy in the chest as he rolled out of the pocket and he ended up throwing a duck that was picked off by Bengals safety Reggie Nelson at the Cincinnati 46.
Dalton then hooked up again with Gresham on a huge third-and-eight when he was one-on-one with linebacker Scott Fujita and it set up Nugent's 40-yard field goal with 10:57 left in the game.
The Bengals defense was doing it without injured tackle Pat Sims (ankle) and safety Chris Crocker (shoulder), although Crocker seemed to be rotating with Taylor Mays late in the game and he came back for good.
Atkins gave the Bengals a great shot to take the lead with a third-down sack, his team-leading 6.5 drop, with seven minutes left.
But for the second straight drive, the Bengals opted to go to the air even though running back Cedric Benson had 106 yards on 21 carries for his third 100-yard game of the season. They ran it just once in those two possessions that ended with punts, the last one when Dalton tried to hit Gresham over the middle but the blitz was too quick.
Needing a win to stay at least a game behind Baltimore and Pittsburgh, the Bengals offered their most abysmal outing of the season when they fell behind the Browns 17-7 at the half.
Bengals right tackle Andre Smith's inability to block rookie end Jabaal Sheard all half finally caught up to the Bengals with 33 seconds left when Sheard sacked Dalton and forced just the second lost fumble by the Bengals this season and the first since Sept. 25.
Smith came back to play well in the second half as the offense finished with 389 yards, the team's third highest of the season, and the line didn't allow Dalton to get sacked in the second-half comeback.
But the fumble couldn't have come at a worse time. The Browns got it at the Bengals 14 and with seven seconds left in the half as McCoy exploited poor coverage in the secondary. With three men rushing and eight men dropping into coverage from the Bengals 3 on the last snap before a field-goal attempt, rookie wide receiver Greg Little bolted out of the slot between safety Reggie Nelson and cornerback Adam Jones going to the corner for his first NFL touchdown on McCoy's quick throw just over Nelson's jump.
It was the most points the Browns had scored since Oct. 16.
The Bengals made good on their vow to commit to the running game when they handed the ball nine times to Benson in the first quarter and he responded with 64 yards and a wide-open 16-yard touchdown run that tied the game at seven with 21 seconds left in the first quarter.
But Benson could manage just four yards the rest of the half as the Bengals offense stalled with inconsistent play from the offensive line.
The Bengals had a first down from their 27 with 4:27 left in the half, but Sheard beat Smith and dumped running back Bernard Scott for a three-yard loss. On third down, Sheard chased Dalton out of bounds and he had to throw it away.
Meanwhile, the third-ranked Bengals rush defense took some hits from a Cleveland running game ranked 29th and supposedly in tatters. But running back Peyton Hillis came off the inactive list for the first time in five games and pounded for 42 yards on 10 carries in the half (but he finished with only 65 on 19 carries) as the Browns romped to a 4.7-yard average on 19 first-half carries against a defense that came in allowing just 3.4.
The Browns ended up with 134 rushing yards, the most the Bengals have allowed this season.
The Bengals let the Browns take a 10-7 lead right away early in the second quarter on a big pass play. Working on a third-and-four from the Bengals 40, McCoy found Little beating cornerback Nate Clements for a 15-yard pass to set up Dawson's 32-yard field goal with 9:20 left on the half.
The Bengals did everything they wanted with the football on the game's first drive when Benson ripped off a 33-yard run behind the left side and racked up 40 yards. But he didn't get the last one on a 76-yard drive that took seven and a half minutes and ended when the Browns stuffed Benson on fourth-and-one.
The Browns came into the game seventh in the NFL in allowing just over 19 points per game and eighth in keeping teams out of the end zone in the red zone and they showed why. The Bengals sent Benson behind the right side and fullback Chris Pressley on the fourth-down play and seemed to have a surge, but linebacker Kaluka Maiava filled the hole and safety Mike Adams came over the top to make sure.
The drive not only wasted Benson's second longest run of the season (his longest is a 39-yarder against these Browns on Opening Day), but a couple of big third-down plays.
Wide receiver Andrew Hawkins checked in with his weekly early big play on third down to revive that first drive that appeared to bog down on a hold on left guard Nate Livings. But Hawkins scooted 19 yards on a screen on third-and-19 and then on third-and-eight Dalton hit wide receiver Jerome Simpson in stride over the middle as he worked on cornerback Sheldon Brown for a nine-yard gain on third-and-eight.
The goal-line stand did lead to points because the Bengals forced a punt from the Cleveland 10 when outside linebacker Manny Lawson and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga chased McCoy out of bounds and the Bengals won a challenge that reversed the spot.
The Bengals got the ball at their own 47 and it took just three plays to get the score. One was Green's first catch since he injured his knee against Pittsburgh two weeks ago, a 24-yard go-to-the-ground catch on the sideline between Cover 2 as Dalton hit him rolling to the right off play-action.
Benson then scored on a 16-yarder running left behind Pressley, walling off safety Usama Young, and Livings and left tackle Andrew Whitworth with 21 seconds left in the first quarter.
It was Green's only catch of the half as Dalton went into halftime 8-of-10 for 87 yards. McCoy was 8-of-18 for 102 yards with the only turnover of the half the Bengals' killing fumble.
Just exactly what the Bengals couldn't have happen happened on the game's first drive when the comatose Browns offense scored for the first time this season in the first quarter on McCoy's 24-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jordan Norwood.
McCoy, barely averaging six yards per pass in an offense dearth of plays of at least 20 yards, got two right away when he went after Clements. Clements slipped covering Norwood down the right sideline for a 36-yard play and then on third-and-10 McCoy had all day and Clements again let Norwood get behind him for the touchdown only four minutes into the game.
But Clements and the rest of the defense stepped up in the second half. For the fourth time this season the Bengals didn't allow a second-half touchdown.
PREGAME NOTES: The probables turned out to be probables Sunday when Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis filled out his active list for the game against the Browns at soaked Paul Brown Stadium, where a light to moderate rain was predicted to fall during the game.
Wide receiver A.J. Green (knee) was back for the first time in six quarters, cornerback Adam Jones (groin) made his second straight start, and left tackle Andrew Whitworth (thigh) extended his streak to 43 straight starts. Right end Michael Johnson (shoulder) was active, but for the second time this season Frostee Rucker started in his place. Also as expected, left end Carlos Dunlap (hamstring) missed his second game in three weeks and tight end Donald Lee (foot) missed his third straight. Also inactive were safety Robert Sands, linebacker Dontay Moch, guard Clint Boling, tackle Anthony Collins, and wide receiver Ryan Whalen.
The Browns made running back Peyton Hillis (hamstring) active after he had missed the last five games. Montario Hardesty's injured calf didn't respond in warmups and Hills was expected to start.
One Bengal that figures to be done for the rest of the year after Sunday is outside linebacker Keith Rivers. Rivers, a first-round pick in 2008, had wrist surgery three weeks before training camp and has yet to practice. His time on the physically unable to practice list (PUP) is up this week, so it's expected he'll go on season-ending injured reserve Monday or Tuesday.
More evidence the Bengals were going to try and pound it in the running came when Lewis made right guard Bobbie Williams and fullback Chris Pressley game captains, along with Rucker, and linebackers Dan Skuta and Manny Lawson.
The Bengals won the toss and deferred, taking the ball at the beginning of the second half.