CLEVELAND - The Bengals had a face-to-face with one of their realities of the offseason Sunday when another AFC North rival schemed and executed through their defense in Cleveland's 493-yard effort during a 26-18 loss.
Whether head coach Marvin Lewis returns or not in 2019, whoever is in charge of the Bengals defense has to get them back in the game in the division since Lewis has indicated he's not going to continue to call the defensive plays after this season.
The Bengals are in last place because in five North games they're giving up an average of 429 yards and 27 points while passers are hitting 67 percent of their throws for eight yards per shot while throwing 13 touchdowns against just three interceptions.
Whether it's been Browns rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield building off Hue Jackson's playbook with the help of new offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens, or the Ravens deploying the athleticism of Ravens rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson in Baltimore, or Steelers Hall-of-Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger beating a much second-guessed zero blitz in the final 10 seconds, the Bengals have struggled to find answers in a division they won three years ago.
"I feel like we should never be in last place in the division and we are now," said left end Carlos Dunlap, who remembers the days when Paul Brown Stadium was a graveyard for opposing passers. "We have a lot of talent and we're underperforming. So we need to figure out why. I don't think injuries (are) the only answer. I feel like we were doing it before we got hurt."
Mayfield's strutting and preening (showboating to Bengals' fans while the long awaited fiery leader for Browns fans) during a long Lakefront day sent the signal the Bengals have to respond to the new wave. On Sunday Mayfield became the first Cleveland quarterback to beat the Bengals twice in a season since the Browns returned from exile in 1999. Before that it was Vinny Testaverde in 1994 in the game the Bengals had to turn to third team quarterback Jeff Blake to finish.
Look, Mayfield is as terrific as he is insufferable and he did it Sunday with seamless precision out of the creative Kitchens' play calls. He finished the sweep completing 73 percent of his 63 passes against the Bengals without getting touched, never mind sacked, for 10 yards per throw and seven touchdowns against no interceptions.
As the ironies continue to rip through this rivalry with Shakespearean velocity, Jackson put together the offensive staff before he was fired as head coach back in October and ended up on the Bengals sideline helping Lewis navigate the added responsibilities of defensive coordinator in the wake of Teryl Austin's Nov. 12 firing.
Last month the Browns went to a four wide-receiver look and by the time the Bengals responded Mayfield was up 28-0 hitting 17 of his first 20 passes. On Sunday the defense played much better and was more aggressive in coverage when the Bengals came out and held Mayfield to four completions on his first nine throws.
But the offense gave them no help with a depleted passing game that amassed just 107 yards while converting just one of eight third downs. And you can't blame Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Lazor's playbook given what injuries have done to it. He may have not sent out that lineup for the first snap of the second half of a pre-season game, never mind a December division game.
And, look, Lewis had his own set of challenges Sunday. Another major off-season item is dealing with linebacker Vontaze Burfict's long-term health after he left the game in the second quarter with his second concussion in three weeks. His absence underscored how the Bengals have never had their full complement of healthy linebackers this season and that has killed them against these new wrinkly schemes that are just as effective horizontally as they are vertically.
Images from the Week 16 matchup as the Bengals face the Cleveland Browns in the "Battle of Ohio."
Plus, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick left with a shoulder injury in the second quarter, leaving the field to rarely used rookie corner Darius Phillips. The rotation in the middle of the defensive line, decimated by five players on injured reserve, didn't hold up Sunday when rookie running back Nick Chubb basically went for six yards per his 19 pops.
Kitchens could see all this and had them back on their heels to open the second half. He had already burned them on a 63-yard wide receiver pass off a double reverse in the first half and then he went with direct-snap jet sweeps, three-man backfields and more screens than a wraparound porch.
"Decision making," said Bengals rookie defensive Sam Hubbard of Mayfield's growth. "We were rushing hard, and he was getting the ball out fast. He knew where he wanted to go with it before it was even snapped it seemed like. He was just slinging it, and that's the sign of a good quarterback. I just think he's come a long way in that respect."
On Sunday Mayfield completed 27 of 37 passes for 284 yards to nine different receivers.
"We had tight coverage all day," said Nick Vigil, the Bengals' last linebacker standing who missed five of his own games and didn't play against Mayfield the last time. "He made some really good throws. We didn't have guys running wide open down the field. He put the ball in really good places and they made good catches."
They were more competitive against the pass than last month and Mayfield made some great throws that no one could get, like his first touchdown of the day, a three-yard floater to 6-4 tight end David Njoku posting up safety Shawn Williams.
But Vigil was down on himself for being in the wrong gap on Chubb's 22-yard run in a 0-0 game late in the first quarter that was the longest play in the first touchdown drive. And he didn't think the defense responded to the Browns' second half offense.
"Jet sweeps. A lot of motions. We didn't handle it very well," Vigil said. "You can't get lost in all the motion … You just can't get your eyes lost like that … You just have to believe in your keys. A couple of times we got out of position and they gashed us."
And with Mayfield leading the histrionics, they know they have to fix it.