CLEVELAND – Playing without injured rookie quarterback Andy Dalton in the second half after he got X-rays on his throwing wrist, the Bengals pounded out a stunning victory in Sunday's opener at Cleveland Browns Stadium when they took a 20-17 lead with 4:28 left in the game and closed in on an improbable Opening Day win when backup Bruce Gradkowski quick-snapped on third-and-11 and rookie wide receiver A.J. Green made his first NFL catch one to remember when he flew by flat-footed cornerback Joe Haden for a 41-yard touchdown play.
Running back Cedric Benson finished it off with 1:49 left when his 39-yard touchdown run on third-and-three stunned the Browns again for the 27-17 win as Benson finished with 121 yards on 25 carries.
With the victory, Dalton becomes the fifth NFL quarterback ever to win his debut on the road.
With the Bengals failing to get a first down from 12:58 left in the second quarter until Benson converted a third-and-one for six yards with 3:04 left in third quarter, the Browns turned a 13-0 deficit into a 17-13 lead in the middle of the fourth quarter.
Gradkowski, 5-of-12 for 92 yards after the pass, got the ball at his own 38 with 6:19 left in a driving rain. On the series before on second down, Haden tugged on Green's jersey on a go pattern but the call wasn't made and Green came back to the bench tearing his helmet off in frustration.
How things change. After a 22-yard screen pass to running back Brian Leonard, Gradkowski worked his magic.
As it did much of the day, the defense responded and then forced Browns quarterback Colt McCoy into three straight incompletions with good coverage by the Bengals secondary and the Bengals got the ball back with 3:32 left. But the Bengals clearly put the onus on their defense and called three runs to set up a Kevin Huber punt. But it was only a 37-yarder and the only way Josh Cribbs didn't score was when Huber got blocked into him at the Browns 41.
And the defense came up big on fourth-and-eight with 2:12 left when ends Carlos Dunlap and Robert Geathers forced McCoy to throw to an illegal receiver.
Dalton's NFL debut ended abruptly when he didn't return at halftime with a wrist injury and when Gradkowski went through two straight three-and-outs inside the Bengals 20 to start the second half the Browns stretched a 14-13 lead to 17-13 late in the third quarter.
Dalton's return was officially called doubtful, but as the third quarter wound down he was wearing a Bengals ballcap and he was nowhere near his helmet.
Cornerbacks Leon Hall and Nate Clements defended balls in the end zone to force Phil Dawson's 24-yard field goal midway through the third quarter as Cleveland took a 17-13 lead. After killing the Bengals with big plays in the first half, McCoy killed them softly underneath zones on Cleveland's first drive of the half and when middle linebacker Rey Maualuga missed tight end Benjamin Watson on an eight-yard play, the Browns were in the red zone.
The Bengals' second series of the half started inside their 10 when new kick returner Brandon Tate appeared not to be on the same page with his blocking and got drilled. Then the third possession would have started inside the Bengals 1 when Tate misplayed a punt, but Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis' last challenge was good when it was ruled that the ball was touched on the goal line, bringing the ball out to the 20-yard line.
The Bengals did what Lewis wanted them to do when they took the breath out of the Browns with a 13-0 lead in the game's first 20 minutes, but two big pass plays to tight ends staked Cleveland to a 14-13 halftime lead.
The Browns were supposed to be the swaggering favorites, but when they committed their eighth penalty with 7:20 left in the first half the Bengals had yet to commit one and Cleveland was starting from its own 10 down, 13-7.
But defensive end Michael Johnson let McCoy spin out of sack when he ran through an arm tackle, and McCoy later made the Bengals pay when he rolled away on a bootleg from hard-charging outside linebacker Thomas Howard and barely got off a 56-yard pass to wide-open wide receiver Mohammed Massaquoi running behind safety Reggie Nelson.
The Browns, who couldn't get past their own 25 on the first three series, then took the 14-13 lead with 4:42 left in the half when tight end Evan Moore got inside cornerback Leon Hall for a four-yard touchdown pass.
With Dalton calmly directing his first three NFL series, the Bengals collected a touchdown and the second of two Mike Nugent's field goals, a 47-yarder that made it 13-0 with into the second quarter.
But when Nugent drilled his fourth straight kickoff deep into the end zone, Cribbs decided not to take a fourth straight touchback and pumped life back into a flat crowd with a 52-yard return.
Moments later McCoy rolled out right and threw against the grain to hit wide-open Benjamin Watson running down the middle for a 34-yard touchdown pass.
The two big plays spoiled Dalton's solid first pro half. He threw his first NFL touchdown pass into the teeth of the Dawg Pound on a two-yarder over the middle in a tight window to stretching tight end Jermaine Gresham for Cincinnati's 10-0 lead with 2:22 left in the first quarter before a shell-shocked gathering.
Dalton's throw came on third down—the Bengals' third conversion of the game and the first through the air—as Gresham worked safety T.J. Ward across the field. It was set up by wide receiver Brandon Tate's second NFL punt return (and first as a Bengal) when he did a tightrope down the left sideline before cutting it inside for a 15-yard gain.
It was Gresham's drive all the way. Dalton pumped to wide receiver Jerome Simpson down the right sideline and then came back down the left to Gresham for a 22-yarder.
Benson, who carried on the drive's other five plays behind left tackle Andrew Whitworth as the Bengals tried to exploit the undersized Browns defensive ends, pounded for five yards and then lost a yard before the TD.
At that point Benson had 10 carries for 36 yards, but he only got the ball one more time as the Bengals running game slowed.
It couldn't have started out much better for the Bengals' new era. After they deferred the kickoff, they pushed the Browns on a three-and-out and after a poor punt responded with a 10-play, 35-yard drive that set up Nugent's 24-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead with 8:20 left in the first quarter. Left end Robert Geathers knocked down McCoy's pass on the first snap of the season.
The Bengals pounded it to Benson on the first three carries of the season for 14 yards and an eight-yard throw to Gresham got them close. But Haden made two good plays to bat balls away in the end zone the first on second down to Simpson and the second on third down in the right corner ticketed to Green.
The Bengals defensive line changed up on the second series. Jon Fanene checked in at right end and bolted past Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas to dump Hillis for a four-yard loss and sent the Browns reeling. Cleveland committed three penalties on the drive and had trouble adjusting to Johnson working inside on third down.
But McCoy regrouped to finish the half on 8-of-16 passing for 118 yards.
PREGAME NOTES: There were no surprises when Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis unveiled his ready list before Sunday's opener at Cleveland Browns Stadium, meaning the club's youngest offense since quarterback Akili Smith lined up with rookie receivers Peter Warrick and Ron Dugans against these Browns in the 2000 Paul Brown Stadium opener took the field.
This time it was rookie quarterback Andy Dalton lined up with wide receiver A.J. Green and right guard Clint Boling, the first time the Bengals started three rookies on offense on Opening Day since 1969.
The only inactives not injured for the Bengals were fourth running back Cedric Peerman, sixth wide receiver Ryan Whalen and fifth safety Robert Sands. Safety Taylor Mays (knee), cornerback Kelly Jennings (hamstring), SAM llinebacker Dontay Moch (foot) and guard Otis Hudson (knee) were out.
It leaves the Bengals with four cornerbacks and three safeties. Safety Chris Crocker can move inside on a slot receiver if needed on passing downs.
The Browns made one change in their starting lineup, shelving injured right tackle Tony Pashos for Oniel Cousins. Cousins arrived late in the preseason off waivers.
Lewis sent out for captains left tackle Andrew Whitworth and left guard Nate Livings, defensive tackle Domata Peko, cornerback Leon Hall, and safety Jeromy Miles for the special teams. while wearing black jerseys and white pants.
The Bengals and Browns joined with police and military to hold an American flag that covered the field. Bengals middle linebacker Rey Maualuga wore red, white and blue cleats as just one of the day's remembrances of the 10th anniversary of 9/11.