Initial comments ...
"(I'm) really pleased with the performance of our guys today. This really was the game we've been expecting — we've been waiting — to play all year. When you hear me say, 'I've enjoyed our preparation, I've liked our preparation leading up to games and the mentality of our players,' that's what it has looked like every game of the season — we just hadn't put it all together (up to this point). So today was a really good job (by us) of putting all three phrases together, and helping us earn a victory in a divisional game (and) a home game.
"The crowd ... we heard 'em. There were some third downs where they were the loudest we've heard them all season. So that's the right way to end the season (and) give us a little bit of momentum going into the offseason, but I'm proud of the way everybody has fought through 17 weeks here. (There has been) a lot of adversity, and we got a win today, and that felt good."
Having a season like you've had, how big is it for your psyche and that of the team's to go out a winner today?
"It's big. Just (to have) the feeling that we have in the locker room right now — that feeling that we'll have tomorrow in the building — even though we know that it's unacceptable to go 2-14 in an NFL season, (it's big). We are all very clear on that. But all we can control is what's right in front of us. And today, this is what was right in front of us, and we did it. I'm proud of the way the guys responded, and we just (want to) use all the momentum we can gain from that, move on to tomorrow and on to the offseason."
What was different that made you guys able to put it all together today versus other games this year?
"We played good complimentary football. We created some turnovers. For the most part, aside from the shot(gun) play we took a shot on and gave up the turnover there, I just thought we — overall — we were better situationally. You look at the red zone on offense, you look at third down on defense — all the areas that maybe we've done a couple things well in a game and then maybe we weren't good on third down or in the red zone — today you saw production on both sides of the ball in all those situational phases."
Can you talk about the play of Darius Phillips today?
"He's a ball hawk. When the ball comes near him, he just makes a play on it. You know, the one (interception) that was almost a punt return in a sense, he just has a knack for the ball and makes a play when it's in his vicinity. Those are the kinds of things you need from guys. We've been missing that a lot this year, and he has stepped up and gotten some key turnovers for us."
How much did Joe Mixon and the offensive line set the tone for the game right off the bat?
"Right off the bat, (they did). You know, when it's going to be a wet game, you're going to have to lean on that (the rushing game). We didn't know how wet it was going to be, but we went in and we had good production against them the last time we played. That was fresh on our guys' minds that we needed to replicate that, and we did and then some, it felt like. Again, Joe, you saw him running through some people today. He was on a mission, and that's a credit to the guys up front. And that's a credit to (offensive line coach) Jim Turner, and the guys that put together that run plan, you know? We all felt very good about what we were going to go out and do, and we went out and executed it."
What does it show you that Mixon was running that hard in Week 17, despite the team's record?
"He's been that way all season. Earlier, we had some struggles there in the first couple of weeks, but starting with the (Los Angeles) Rams game, we really felt he really has done a good job carrying it. Again, he and the offensive line are just in sync, and then Gio (Bernard also) gets in here — we have (high) expectations for Gio as well. The receivers have done a better job improving every week on the perimeter in the running game, and that's why he's able to get up on some of those safeties and corners. Everybody did their job in the run game."
What attributed to today's performance, given the season you've had?
"It speaks to the leaders we have in the locker room and the leaders we have in the coaching staff, that we've managed to keep everybody in this thing (and) playing the right way. You know, all we can control is today, and we felt like we really put our best game on the field today. That was the best we've played. We can't control what we did the other 15 games. We can just control today, and I'm proud our guys executed today."
Is there a sense of pride you guys avoided having the only one-win season in franchise history?
"That's not really how we look at it. We have to improve on the things we made mistakes on every single week. And in each area, we have seen that improvement. This is a good way to finish the season and (a good example to) point back to in April, when our players show back up. We finished it the way that we should have been executing it the whole season, and that's what it's going to take. That's what it's going to feel like and that's the way we expect the Bengals to play football. That's a great way to end the season."
Can you speak to one thing you did well this season and one thing you need to improve on now that the season is done?
"I feel like there are a lot of things I can improve as I go (forward). I just try to make the notes every single week, so I don't forget things I realize (now that) maybe that I was going (down) on the wrong path on in September. I think our coaching staff has done a good job of that, hitting on all the things that we can improve on. Now that everyone has (been here), it's seeing how things are going to go. What's our culture going to look like in the offseason for a full year? What's our system going to look like on offense, defense (and) special teams? Everyone knows what to expect from each other. We've got to come back ready to clean everything up — tighten everything up — so that we can win a heck of a lot more ballgames next year. (There's) probably too much to say there. There's a lot in both areas."
As a quarterback coach, what did you think of Joe Burrow's performance during Louisiana State University's bowl game last night?
"Those aren't things we worry about. We had a huge divisional game right in front of us. Obviously, I was concerned about our guys playing their best, and thought that the focus was very good today."
As a fan, did you get a chance to watch any of the LSU game?
"No. Any time there's a game on Saturday, I peek (at it) if I'm sitting around, but for the most part, (no). I took my son to the Harlem Globetrotters game yesterday, so that was my focus there in the short term, and then we (the team) came back (together) and had meetings last night."
The defense made their presence felt today. Is that the kind of performance you want to see from them consistently?
"Without question. And you saw (Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield) had to hold on to the ball a lot as well, so that goes both ways: The coverage is doing a great job communicating on the back end. They've got some explosive playmakers now, and they made some plays. That's what happens when you play that team. But for the most part, they were in sync (in terms of) the coverage and pressure. Our guys were relentless with their energy and they got to the quarterback, giving us some huge plays in that area."
What do you think the players learn from a 2-14 season?
"Well, they know, No. 1, it's not acceptable. We've got to be playing for bigger things here in December. That's certainly our plan, and guys believe that can happen. They know how close we've been, and they see it better than anybody. Now they see what a complete game looks like. That's been our expectation all year, and we have to make sure our guys understand that as we meet with them tomorrow, and as we return in April. A lot of what we put on the field this year is not acceptable for the Bengals. They know that, they realize that, and I know we have the right guys in that locker room to get us pointed in the right direction."
How would you assess the way Andy Dalton finished the season given his benching, etc.?
"(He's a) true leader. Really, that's the expectation we have for him with everything we knew about him before we got here. He's really kept the support there and put us over the top. Today, he made some great decisions, (and he) got us back in it (against Miami) last week. You can't say enough great things about what Andy Dalton has meant for this team, and I thought he really played well for us today.
"Really, the one shot (that was intercepted in the end zone), I wanted him to take that shot, and it got picked — they made a great play. But, as a coach, I'm saying, 'We want to be aggressive here and take a shot, and try to put this thing away.' Cleveland made a big play on (that throw)."
Would other quarterbacks be hesitant to make throws like that — throws that may end up looking bad in terms of their stat lines?
"I'm very confident that he doesn't worry about his stat line. He just tries to do what he can to make the plays, and when you can be on the same wavelength with your quarterback. (You know that) he knows, 'He wants me to be aggressive here, so I'm going to be aggressive,' and he understands when to check the ball down when it's not there. He does a great job with managing the game that way."
Do you think you've coached him for the last time?
"The offseason stuff will take care of itself. But right now, we've got this team in the building, and we'll handle them tomorrow and sort all the other stuff out later."
Did you think about pulling Dalton before the last kneel down, so maybe he could have a moment in front of the fans?
"No. My brain doesn't work that way. We were just trying to end that game. Trust me, he handled it the right way, getting the kneel downs and filling up the time. We just wanted to end that game the right way."
Will it be enough next year to talk about how hard we played after defeats?
"It's not enough this year. We don't want to be pulling moral victories out of everything. But again, it was a team learning their coaching staff, (and) a coaching staff learning their team, and we fought through some adversity. There were some challenges there. We need more wins, and it's not acceptable for me to sit up here and say, 'Well, our effort was good.' That's not the way the NFL works, and we all understand that. We have to win more football games."
You said this was the most complete game you played all year. What can you build from this game going into the offseason?
"I think our communication has improved as we've gone (forward), and that's what really shows up when you're getting stops on third down on defense, and when your running game is as efficient as it has been ... the second half of the season. It just goes to show that we're all getting on the same page. We need guys to step up in the fourth quarter and make big plays, and you saw that today (with) Joe Mixon running over their safety at the end to put us in field goal range. We've seen that from (a lot of) guys recently really — stepping up and swaying the game in our favor. Those are the things we've just got to build on."
What did Dalton do to help you establish the culture you wanted in your first year?
"You need your quarterback to lead by example and he's done that. He's in the building more than anyone else. He knows the playbook inside and out. He does a great job helping guys get lined up when they need the help, so he's just a guy you don't have any concerns about on or off the field. That's critical, and Andy's done that for us."
Is it better to have a veteran in a position to do those things rather than a second- or third-year player trying to do so?
"You want guys that can quickly learn from their experiences, and Andy's got a wealth of experience there. Even when Ryan (Finley) was playing, Andy was right there by his side to help him. (I'm) just happy with that."
Take us through what you saw today ...
"It was a complete game. This is what we've been looking for all year. So to be able to run the ball the way we did, and with defense causing turnovers, this is what we expected going into the year. It's good to end this season on a high note, with a win."
When you took the last two kneel-downs, did you think back on your career here at all?
"I mean, I wasn't going through my whole career — not a life-flashing moment (laughs). I get that it could have been the last snaps. I've played my career in a Cincinnati Bengals uniform. What better way to do it, if it is the case. Again, guys, I don't know. I have no idea what's going to happen. If it is, you always want to end a game by taking a knee."
The crowd was chanting your name as you walked off the field. What does that mean to you?
"It means a lot. There's been a lot of support from this city, for not only what we've done on the field, but what we've done off of it. This city's meant a lot to me and my family. Like I was talking about earlier this week, I've spent my whole married life here, and my three kids have been raised here. The city has meant a lot to us. It feels good to get the appreciation from the fans chanting my name."
As you prepared for today's game, did it cross your mind as to how this may be your last game here?
"No, it did not."
If this is your last game as a Bengal, what does it mean to walk off a winner?
"It means a lot. You always want to end the year on a high note, regardless of how the season has gone. To get this one done, it meant a lot. We've been striving to play a complete game this whole year, and we hadn't done it enough. We finally felt like we did that today."
What does Joe Mixon's reckless abandon when running do for the team?
"It gets everybody going. It gives you that momentum. Guys love seeing it. Joe runs so hard. The hits that he takes, and the hits he puts on people, are something that's special to him. It's something not a lot of backs can do. Joe is arguably one of the best backs in this league. I think the way he ran the ball today shows it."
Trey Hopkins called Mixon's energy 'contagious' ...
"Yeah, that's a great way to put it. Guys feed off of it. Joe's confident. I think I've said it before, but confidence is contagious. When you have these big runs and you have these big plays, it gives everyone the confidence that we're going to get this thing done."
Is there anything that stands out from today as special?
"Yeah, I think taking that last knee and knowing that we won this game. Obviously there was so much that was good. I thought the energy that we had on the sideline and the energy that we had during the game were big. The defense causing the turnovers was huge. The offense was feeding off of that, and I felt like we had everything going in our favor today. The way we carried ourselves today, the way that we came out, it showed a lot. With them scoring a big-play touchdown, and for us to come right back down the field and score to answer that, it was huge. It was just a complete game today."
On your rushing touchdown, did you think you were going to hit the pylon?
"No. Once I got out, I wasn't sure what was coming right next to me. Once I got the edge, I felt like I was going to score."
It was a bit of a flashback to your one receiving touchdown ...
"Yeah, I did think that once I hit the pylon. I was thinking that was really similar to the touchdown that I caught (in 2014)."
What was the difference in culture this year, as opposed to years past?
"There's a lot of good stuff from both staffs. One thing that's been great from this one is that we've been able to handle the adversity of this season. To have as many losses as we've had, the guys are sticking together. That's a big testament to Zac (head coach Zac Taylor). That's one thing that shows that Zac is doing this thing the right way."
You obviously don't know what's going to happen with your future, but what do you want personally?
"I want to be a starter in this league. I know I can do that. I just want the opportunity to be a starter. We'll see how that goes."
When will the Bengals inform you about the future?
"I don't know. I have no idea what's going to happen, guys."
Can you sum up your experience in this town?
"I was just talking about it earlier. This city's been great to us. A lot of support has been received in this city. This city has been our home since I got drafted here, and this city's meant a lot. I'm thankful for all the people that we've met. There's been a lot of good people in Cincinnati who have pushed me, my wife and my family to be better people, and we're grateful for that."
What is it about Cleveland that makes you play so well?
"It's the last time going out in 2019, I wanted to leave the season on a positive note. I don't want to talk about me though; my line did a great job. They were physical and set the tone off the bat, and Randy Bullock sealed the deal. I give credit to all of them."
You seemed to do it all today ...
"That's what I try to do to put a stamp on the year. I want to build off this. The coaches called it up, and we went out and executed it. That's what we're supposed to do. I think everybody did a great job, and we have to build off it."
It was a complete game for the team ...
"I think the guys did a great job of not playing behind the sticks. There were no bad penalties. We executed the game plan. Coach (Zac Taylor) had the plan going in to be balanced, and we did a great job of doing that today. A lot of people stepped up in a big way, especially John Ross stepped up at the end. It was a slow start, but it's not how you start it's how you finish. We needed him in a big way and he delivered. Alex Erickson on the third and three, Andy (Dalton) did a great job checking down, and Alex made the play. After that, we delivered with the run for me. Hats off to everybody, we all played a part in this."
You crossed 1,000 yards with a 41-yard burst ...
"It was a great feeling. The line blocked it perfectly. We preached all week one-on-one in space. I showed that on that play. The defensive back wanted to talk and it was a chippy game, but we came out of it mistake free. We did what we were supposed to do."
All that talk probably turned into respect after?
"That's what I wanted to do. Have to give hats off to the linemen and receivers that also delivered in a big way today. Andy was delivering too with big conversions. We came out and executed. Playing against a divisional opponent, we did what we were supposed to do."
If this is Andy Dalton's last game, what do you have to say?
"He's a fighter. He went through adversity. At the end of the day, that's Andy. As soon as I came in, he embraced me from day one. I'll always ride and die with him. No matter what the situation may be, I'm sure he's going to fight. Nothing in this league comes easy, and I'm proud of how he bounced back. You put anyone else in that situation, they may not bounce back. Andy did, and I take my hat off to him."
Were your linemen going crazy when you were playing well?
"They were doing that all day. I was feeding off them, and vice versa. That's how it's supposed to be. Bursting through the hole and making the play is exciting. They did a great job, and it was a great feeling."
Were you aware how close you were to last year's rushing total?
"I was trying to go get it. Somebody told me in the fourth quarter. But at the end of the day, I'm glad we turned it around. The linemen did a great job, so I'm happy for everybody."
You led the team in interceptions despite limited snaps, how do you build off that?
"I want to get better, and never let my team down. On the field I don't play just for myself, I play for the team and the fans."
Did Odell Beckham Jr. say anything to you with your physical play?
"It's football, we all talk to each other. At the end of the day, there's mutual respect. We'll hopefully battle again next year."
Your returns are dangerous. Do you try to take it to the house every time?
"I try to read blocks and score every time. I thought I was going to score today, but Jarvis Landry came out of nowhere."
It was a team effort on defense, does that make it easier?
"It does. When the front plays great, it's easier for us and vice versa."
How important was it to get a division win at home to finish the season?
"Nobody wants to go into the offseason with a loss to a rival. This can spearhead us into next season."
Was the strategy to shut down the run and make them throw it?
"It was to stop the run that was the main focus. I feel like we did that today. Then our offense played great with Joe (Mixon) and the offensive line. They helped the defense out a lot today."
What was the plan for an elusive quarterback like Baker Mayfield?
"We wanted to get him into the third and long. We were one sack shy of getting Geno Atkins to talk to you guys. We stopped the run well too, and the offense controlled the clock."
How much do you guys feed off each other?
"It's a collective effort. The offense was clicking. Anytime Joe (Mixon) gets 30 touches, he goes crazy. That should be the recipe going forward. The whole defensive line worked together. Everybody almost got two sacks. Everybody brought something today, and that was our goal."
What was the locker room like afterwards?
"It was very exciting. The season was disappointing, but we kept our head on straight and focused week in and week out. We finished it off strong though. The whole season was discouraging, but we finished on a positive note, so we'll build on that."
Can that be achieved consistently?
"We overcame a lot of adversity this year. It's the start of something. We got one, now we want to keep it going."
How much better does it make the offseason?
"It makes it a lot better. When you evaluate yourself though, you look at the whole record."
Did the defensive line set the tone today?
"Yes. The offense set the tone as well. They responded with a big play after Cleveland went deep early. We need to be better at preventing those plays."
If this is Andy Dalton's last game, what does that mean for the team?
"It means a lot, seeing the way he finished the game today. He dove for the pylons, stepped up in the pocket, and extended many series. He overcame the adversity of being benched on his birthday. He stuck to being the leader in the locker room still, mentoring Ryan Finley, who can still be a great player in this league. Obviously there's the Joe Burrow question, and that's a realistic scenario. For Andy, it's a great thing to go out on. Sadly, with the terms being what they are, you just have to make the best of it. He did that today, we did that today, and got the win."
Looking back at five straight playoff appearances, how much do you look at the four years after?
"That draft class in 2011 sparked us to get five straight appearances in the playoffs. But we also lost those five games, so it wasn't enough. It's bittersweet. It's a new day though; we want to take that next step. Zac Taylor is implementing a new culture around here. This year is not an example of it (with the team's record), but if you had been in the locker room around the team, you'd feel the steps in the right direction. The record doesn't show it, but when you look at the tape, guys are putting in the work."
How did the team stick together?
"We focused week in and week out. If you really love the game, you should be ready to play and locked in every week. Zac does a good job taking care of the guys and changing the culture."
You had a strong finish to the season ...
"The bye came at a perfect time. I broke my streak of consecutive games played, so that was frustrating. After the bye week, I had the time off to rest my knee and get back healthy. I wanted to finish strong. I'm still not 100 percent, but that bye gave me a second wind. And we came together as a team defensively. It was an accumulation of all of that; our defensive line getting healthy, and getting more opportunities to rush. We wanted to get everyone involved."
There was a balanced effort with that today ...
"Exactly. That's what you have to look forward to; more opportunities to rush."
How much does one win linger?
"It's good today. Ending the year with a win is a great feeling. Our season didn't go the way we wanted, and that's the big picture. But we're focusing week in and week out. Today is good; we'll enjoy it by going out to eat to celebrate. This locker room won't be the same after today, and we know that. We'll get together as a team and do something together, and handle everything as it comes."
How good is it to see young guys step up?
"Germaine Pratt, Fred Johnson, and Darius Phillips all are the future. Then Jonah Williams will get healthy. Joe Mixon is still a young player, as with Sam Hubbard. Carl Lawson is recovering from an injury still. We have a lot of potential talent here. Then we'll do what we do in the draft. That will help get the results we want."
If this was Andy Dalton's last game as a Bengal, what does it mean to you?
"He's been a leader, a beacon of hope. I'll never forget that Atlanta game last season there on that final drive. His confidence in the huddle when he just let us know, 'Hey, we're going to win this game.' He always brings that. Same thing we had last week in Miami. He always has been that beacon of hope. He's never down. He always has that confidence in the huddle. I'm forever grateful to him."
He's from Texas and reminds me of those guys in the old Westerns where, "We're just going to get this done." Is that accurate?
"You never see him flinch, and never see him down. He is just that guy — very calm, very controlled and very confident."
What does it say about this group that, especially in the last two games, you showed a lot of fight?
"Confidence. Every man in here has pride. Nobody wants to go out there and get humiliated. We all take pride in just winning our one-on-one battles, and it showed. It's a great way to finish the season and start off next year."
As a receiver, you like to go out there and make plays. But what's it like to be able to run the ball like that?
"When we can run that ball that efficient, the pass game is going to open up great. At the end of the day, we just needed to keep pounding it, keep hitting them and keep gashing them. That's a receiver's dream. You get that run going, and then you're one-on-one all day out there. I loved it."
Will this win linger for a while, and will you have a good feeling going forward?
"Absolutely. Even if we'd have lost, I still feel like we've got a great shot next year. We're a very talented team. We just need to continue to believe."
How big was that first touchdown, after the Browns scored three plays in?
"That's how you change a game. You've got to answer. They had two minutes on the clock, and there was a lot of football left. We just had to go out there and find ourselves and dominate."
You guys had six sacks today. The defensive seemed to get after them all day ...
"Yeah. I mean, we've been talented. We've just been down all year — playing from behind. The Jets game, you could see what we could do. This past game, you could see what we could do. If we're up or we're in a competitive position, we can just feast. We've had a talented D-line. I think that's the main thing that's been happening this year, is not being able to stop the run. Once you stop the run, you can get after the passer."
Are you totally in the moment right now, or do you allow yourself to look at next year?
"I'm going to go take a break and then go look at next year. I haven't thought about next year at all. I know what I need to fix, and I know what I am capable of."
What do you need to fix?
"Just having an offseason healthy. I wasn't fully healthy at camp, and then I tried to get back to who I was and there were ups and downs. Like I said, we were playing from behind in games. I'm not making excuses, but that's what it is. I'm blessed and thankful I get to go into the offseason healthy. I can train instead of trying to figure out how to walk and run again. We've been working hard all season, and I'm happy we can win."
Is it exciting to see so many young faces step up and make plays?
"It's very exciting. I don't know what the future holds, I don't know the plan, but it's very exciting to go out there and have fun together. I'm going to work on my catching, because I dropped a pick (laughs). But I'm good at coverages."
What happened on that?
"Sometimes I don't get the reps, but I was like, 'I'm not going to mess this up' (laughs). I knew he was going to run the end route, so I played it and came back on. He's like a $55 million receiver, and I locked him up man-to-man (laughs). I just didn't finish. That's what separates the great DB's from the ordinary ones, is the picks (laughs). So I have to get better at that."
How does it feel to end the season healthy?
"It feels good to get healthy. This is the first time ever that I've not had to stay here and rehab for a couple months. It feels pretty good."
You and Andy Dalton face uncertain futures here. Was there a bit of soaking it in for you there in the fourth quarter?
"A little bit. And just trying to secure the win. It's been such a long year, and everyone just stuck together. Nobody's going at each other's throats. We just tried to get better every week. Neither team was playing for anything today, but it does feel really good to end the season with a win."
Do you wonder about what the future will look like for you? Is that something you and others start thinking about as soon as this game ends?
"We're going to go hang and have a little gathering after this, so tomorrow when we all have headaches we'll probably think about it (laughs). We've enjoyed being together and everything that comes with being on a football team. Obviously it didn't go how we wanted, but we still spent a lot of time together."
What has Andy Dalton's friendship and your play together on the field meant to you?
"Starting as a rookie, he was more of a dad figure than anything. I'm running around, a dumb little rookie, and then a couple years in, I'm starting to grow up a little bit. I'm getting married, so now we're connected on the same level. That's been fun. I've definitely seen the closeness as I've gotten older."
What will a gathering like this be like tonight?
"It's so hard because you don't want the season to be over, but it is over. We're just going to enjoy each other. A lot of times, when the season's over — and a lot of good friends are in here — everyone has their own lives in different parts of the country, and you don't see a lot of guys. So you just enjoy it and have some fun."
The players seemed to stick together this year through all the losses, but that doesn't seem to be the norm for a team in this situation ...
"No, it's not. I remember years past when we were going to the playoffs, and after one side of the ball has a bad game the other side of the ball is yelling, and it's just crazy. As bad as things were at times this year, guys just never did that. A lot of that is from coach's leadership. That was a big point of emphasis. We're just not going to do it. Hopefully we can build on that going forward, and in the years in the future when we are in the playoff hunt and winning a division, we stay together when things aren't going our way and can make a run."