Wide receiver Mohamed Sanu broke open a one-touchdown game when he ran a reverse for a 25-yard touchdown run with 13:26 left in the game Thursday night as his 8-0 Bengals and quarterback Andy Dalton reversed their prime-time fortunes in a 31-10 victory over the Browns at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium.
When Dalton floated a 19-yard touchdown pass down the left sideline with 7:43 left for tight end Tyler Eifert's third touchdown catch of the night to make it 31-10, his response to the prime-time critics had been as deafening as the crowd of 65,816 that defensive tackle Domata Peko called the loudest he's heard in his 11 seasons.
At that point, Dalton's 142.2 passer rating was 140.2 points more than the implosion against Cleveland 364 days ago. He hit his first eight passes of the second half, hit 19 of his first 24 passes for 207 yards, and set up the TD last to Eifert with a pump fake and run to convert a third-and-two. He finished at 139.8 to jack his season total to 18 TDs against just four interceptions.
Cincinnati Bengals host Cleveland Browns in week 9 of the regular season.
Meanwhile, the Bengals defense, burned by Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel's passes rolling out of the pocket in the first half, adjusted by slowing down their rush and strangled the Browns in the second half. Cleveland, held to seven yards in the half until the last three minutes, whiffed on its first four third-down attempts of the second half. The Bengals finally got to Manziel for their first two sacks of the night early in the fourth quarter on consecutive snaps to force a punt. Left end Carlos Dunlap beat right tackle Mitchell Schwartz on second down for his 7.5th sack of the season and on third down Geno Atkins got his sixth sack to lead all NFL defensive tackles when he backed left guard Joel Bitonio into the pocket.
Dunlap added his 8.5th in the last two minutes when he chased down Manziel from behind. Manziel cooled off in the second half to finish just 15 of 33 for 168 yards for a 71.3 rating.
The Bengals came into the national showcase with a big agenda and cashed the chips. They became the 11th team in this century and the 33rd of all-time to start 8-0. And the first team from the AFC Central-AFC North tree to do it. Plus, they matched the franchise's all-time record of eight straight regular-season wins.
Sanu, escorted into the end zone untouched by Dalton and left tackle Andrew Whitworth after he took a flip from running back Giovani Bernard in the backfield, gave the Bengals the back-breaking 24-10 lead.
One of the crucial plays in the crucial drive came early, on a third-and-eight and the Bengals backed up at their 9, and Dalton threaded a bullet to wide receiver A.J. Green in double coverage on the sideline for 18 yards on the way to a 53-yard night. Then later in the drive on third-and-two from the 50, wide receiver Marvin Jones stumbled, got up and went off for 25 yards to finish as the Bengals leading receiver with 78 yards on five catches.
Head coach Marvin Lewis made a superb challenge early in the second half and it turned into three points. It looked like Manziel had converted a third-and-12 from his 10 five minutes into the second half on a lightning quick scramble up the middle that suddenly came to an end when cornerback Leon Hall came up to drill him.
But Lewis noticed Manziel had hit the ground before the first-down marker at the 22 and the replay overturned it. On the ensuing punt it appeared that 6-8 defensive end Margus Hunt, playing in his first game of the season, tipped an Andy Lee punt that traveled just 28 yards and gave the Bengals the ball at the Cleveland 49.
When Green caught a slant for 15 yards, the Bengals were rolling and proceed to run the ball to the Browns 5 with the big run running back Jeremy Hill's five-yard bolt on third-and-one the big play as he followed center Russell Bodine and right guard Kevin Zeitler.
Two four-yard runs by Giovani Bernard set up a third-and-two at the Browns 5, but Dalton misread a zone read and held the ball instead of handing off to Bernard and took a five-yard loss. That tuned into Mike Nugent's 28-yard field goal with 4:05 left in the third quarter that gave the Bengals a 17-10 lead.
The Bengals defense began to kick into gear to open the second half, forcing the Browns into three-and-outs the two times they had it in the third quarter. On a third-and-four on the second possession, the Bengals kept Manziel in the pocket and with cornerback Adam Jones in front of tight end Gary Barnidge Manziel overthrew him.
Dalton wasted no time deep-sixing last season's Thursday night 2.0 with two touchdown passes to Eifert that staked the Bengals to a 14-10 half-time lead.
But Manziel also wasted no time erasing his nightmarish shutout loss to Cincinnati last year in his first NFL start and rolled out of the pocket to hit running back Duke Johnson for a 12-yard touchdown pass with 19 seconds left in the half to cut it to 14-10 on a 91-yard touchdown drive.
The Bengals let Manziel get out of pocket and he hurt them, hitting 11 of 18 passes for 128 yards and a 101 passer rating. Cincinnati had shut out one of his biggest targets, tight end Gary Barnidge, until that last drive of the half, when he caught two for 35 yards. Then, Johnson raced out of the backfield and ran away from WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict and Manziel found him rolling to his right before he hit the sideline.
Burfict left briefly in the half when he came up limping on his surgically repaired left knee, but he returned for that last drive of the half.
Dalton matched his fellow Texas gunslinger, racking up a 124 passer rating in the half on nine of 13 passing for 77 yards. His nine-yard touchdown pass to Eifert staked the Bengals to a 7-0 lead with 7:08 left in the first quarter.
Then Dalton found Eifert again with 4:34 left on a Johnny Footballish move as he was scrambling to his left and found Eifert in a sea of defenders for a two-yard TD that made it 14-3.
The Bengals, held to just a field goal in last year's 24-3 loss to Cleveland, ran a crisp 10 plays for 63 yards to score a touchdown on their first drive for the fifth time this season and it highlighted by crossing pattern for 29 yards to Marvin Jones on third-and-10.
The Bengals opened the game turning to the down-Hill running game with running back Jeremy Hill lining up behind fullback Ryan Hewitt for 17 yards on four carries. On fourth and a foot from the Browns 13, he got four yards running behind Hewitt's blow-up block of the linebacker as well as right guard Kevin Zeitler's push. That set up the TD pass to the 6-6 Eifert across the middle to the goal line as he easily outreached 5-11 Pro Bowl safety Tashaun Gipson.
Eifert's nine TD catches put him ahead New England's Rob Gronkowski's seven for the NFL lead among tight ends. It is also is the most TD catches by a Bengals tight end in a season, tying the record of Rodney Holman in 1989 and Bob Trumpy in 1969.
It didn't take long to get his eighth, but the Bengals had to mount a 14-play drive and get a massive mistake from the Browns on fourth-and-two at the Cleveland 9. They also needed third-down conversions on passes to Green (his first catch of the game with seven minutes left in the half working in front of cornerback Tramon Williams) and Sanu, who broke Williams' tackle behind the first-down marker and cashed the third-and-six for nine yards.
The Bengals went for it again on fourth-and-two from the Browns 6 and looked to fail when Dalton threw a quick pass on the perimeter into the tuft. But defensive tackle Randy Starks, who ignited the drive with a taunting call on the first play, kept it alive on the 12th when he was called for offsides.
The Browns haven't been able to run the ball all year at 3.4 yards per carry and ranked last in rushing, but they came alive Thursday night in the first half with Isaiah Crowell racking up a 4.-7-yard average on nine carries. But the Bengals also made hay on the ground. Giovani Bernard, who worked the 14-play drive, had 32 yards on six carries while Hill finished the half with 19 yard on six carries.
And the Bengals defense shut everything down in the second half Crowell finished with 38 yards on 10 carries. Bernard (72) and Hill (52) helped the Bengals run for 152 yards on a season-high 37 carries.
Bengals middle linebacker Rey Maualuga (calf) became just the third starter this season to miss a game when head coach Marvin Lewis put him on the inactive list for Thursday night's sell-out at Paul Brown Stadium against the Browns.
Right tackle Andre Smith (concussion) was ruled out on Wednesday and was expected to be replaced by 11-year veteran Eric Winston, a guy that played 32 snaps against the Browns in the Bengals' 30-0 victory Cleveland last Dec. 14.
Maualuga also had a familiar replacement expected to get the start in Vincent Rey. In the last two seasons Rey has started five games in the middle when Maualuga was hurt. With Maualuga down, Lewis dressed rookie linebacker P.J. Dawson as well as defensive end Margus Hunt. With left end Carlos Dunlap nursing a shoulder injury that kept him limited this week in practice, it is the first time Hunt has been activated this season.
Also Thursday, the Bengals chose to dress defensive tackle Brandon Thompson and sit Pat Sims after Sims played in Thompson's place in Pittsburgh.
Joining Smith, Maualuga, and Sims on the inactive list were rookies Mario Alford, Marcus Hardison, and C.J. Uzomah, as well as veteran cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris. The trio of rookies has yet to dress this season.
GOODELL PRAISES OWNERSHIP: Appearing on Cincinnati's 700 WLW-AM before Thursday's game against the Browns at Paul Brown Stadium with Lance McAlister, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell praised Bengals ownership's stability and contributions to the league.
Goodell noted that Bengals president Mike Brown is on the labor committee, executive vice president Katie Blackburn is chair of the Super Bowl advisory committee, and head coach Marvin Lewis is a member of the competition committee.
"Mike Brown and his family are terrific owners. They're people who put the game of football and the NFL first," Goodell said. "They are people I rely on personally . . . The Bengals personnel are very involved. It's made the league better and we're grateful for it."
Goodell also told McAlister's audience that if not every team, he expects almost every team in the next couple of years to participate in the NFL's international series. He also said the league doesn't plan to add another night of football to the schedule.
"We love this combination," Goodell said. "We think it's the right balance."
McAlister also asked about the 2015 season's trends of more penalties and longer games and Goodell said the league continues to monitor both elements. But he also said the NFL is having more close games than ever before the tight finishes are also a factor in longer games.
With NFL Network presenting a documentary on Paul Brown 9 p.m. Friday, Goodell called the Bengals founder "one of the great coaches and teachers. He not only coached players to a higher level, he taught them about life."