If Sunday was supposed to be a swan song for some of his teammates, running back Joe Mixon showed what he's got in store for Bengaldom next season. For the second time in three weeks Mixon hammered the Browns for a career-high as his 162 yards on 26 carries gave the Bengals a 33-23 victory in the season finale at Paul Brown Stadium.
The coup de grace came on his punishing 28-yard run through Cleveland's 10-man front as the clock ticked to three minutes left and on the first play after the two-minute warning Randy Bullock cashed a 46-yard field goal to make it 33-23.
While Mixon made hay, the Bengals defense grounded the NFL's leading rusher Nick Chubb to 41 yards on 13 carries as they swarmed Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield for six sacks and two interceptions by cornerback Darius Phillips in his first start of the season.
It all made a winner of quarterback Andy Dalton with his 70th victory keeping him the Bengals' winningest quarterback of all-time in a game many people feel was his last as a Bengal. In front of a sign declaring "Christmas Comes Early, Welcome Joe Burrow," Dalton went 16 of 28 for 190 yards and jacked his winning percentage to .534 ahead of Ken Anderson's .529. while snapping the Bengals' 10- game AFC North losing streak in head coach Zac Taylor's first division victory.
The Bengals came out with the first drive of the second half with a 20-16 lead and were trying to make it 4-for-4 in the red zone when tight end Tyler Eifert, shaking off a stringer, made a 25-yard catch down the seam on third-eight that put the Bengals on the Cleveland 19.
But then the drive imploded. The Browns sniffed out a screen to tight end C,J. Uzomah for a seven-yard loss, rookie left guard Michael Jordan false started and then Mixon fumbled and Jordan got it back for another seven-yard loss. It was left to Bullock to drill a 47-yard field goal to make it 23-16 six minutes into the second half.
The Bengals' pass rush made things tough on Mayfield as end Carlos Dunlap rampaged to his 2.5 sacks by the time they finished Cleveland's first series of the second half. He got to Mayfield in that drive with help from the other end, Sam Hubbard as they battled for the team sack lead. The season ended with Dunlap winning the title with nine and Hubbard's 1.5 on Sunday giving him 8.5.
Then Mayfield tried to do what he did in the first half and go deep. But he overthrew his ball to wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr., and cornerback Darius Phillips alertly came off the receiver to snag his second interception of the game and he lugged it 27 yards the other way. It was Phillips' amazing team-leading fourth interception of the season and second of the game even though he's played hardly 100 snaps after missing eight games in the wake of knee surgery.
He became the first Bengals cornerback to log two interceptions in a game since Dre Kirkpatrick nearly five years to the day and the first Bengal to get two in a game since linebacker Vontaze Burfict against the Eagles in 2016.
But Dalton gave it back when he launched a bomb to wide receiver John Ross and cornerback Denzel Ward won a jump ball in the end zone.
But Ross came back in the next series to set up the touchdown that gave them a 30-16 lead with back-to-back catch-and-run plays of 14 and 28 yards. That set them up at the Browns 7 and Mixon took two carries to bash in for the two-score lead and the Bengals' first 30-point game at PBS this season with 14:16 left in the game.
Still, the Bengals couldn't put away the infuriating but resilient Mayfield. When Cleveland had a first-and-five from the Bengals 5, end Carl Lawson and Hubbard each sacked Mayfield and in the middle of that Mayfield threw a bullet into Lawson's stomach that Lawson dropped. Then on fourth-and-goal from the 20, Mayfield launched a ball into the end zone that Beckham caught by leaping high over Phillips. That cut it to 30-23 with 7:16 left.
Mixon got his second straight 1,000-yard season in emphatic fashion when he rushed for 103 yards on 15 carries in a first half the Bengals took a 20-16 lead over the big-play Browns.
While Dalton spiced what could be his swan song with a scrambling touchdown and his 204th career touchdown pass in between a steady rain that was sometimes driving, Mayfield completed just six of 15 passes in the face of a stiff Bengals pass rush that sacked him twice. But his completions went for 193 yards (one more than what he had for the game three weeks ago in Cleveland) and that included book-end bombs opening and closing the half's scoring.
Despite those lapses, the Bengals defense was immense, loading up the box and holding Chubb to 21 yards on eight carries.
Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd also reached the 1,000 mark for the second straight year the only way he knows how on the series the Bengals took a 20-7 lead. He needed 13, but got 22 on his first catch of the day bailing the Bengals out of a third-and-14 when he out-muscled himself to separation for a leaping grab over the middle. Then on the next third down with the Bengals needing five, he converted a quick pass for the first down following the blocks of wide receiver Alex Erickson and tight end Tyler Eifert.
Boyd finished the drive with three catches for 31 yards, but it was Dalton that got this touchdown, making it three-for-three in the rainy red zone. On third-and-five, Dalton got chased to his left with Bryan Cox, Jr. in pursuit and Dalton tucked it as Erickson got another block and Dalton scored his Bengals quarterback-record 22nd career rushing touchdown diving on the pylon to give them that 20-7 lead with 10 minutes left in the first half.
Dalton went into the half just seven of 17 for 70 yards, but he converted six of nine third downs, nine of 14 for the game.
The Bengals defense didn't allow a catch to the Browns' pair of Pro Bowl receivers until midway through the second quarter. Landry made a nice back-shoulder catch for 26 yards despite good coverage by cornerback B.W. Webb and Beckham, shot past Phillips for 36 yards.
At the two-minute warning, that's all they had until Landry struck on the first play after the two-minute warning. Landry ran past Webb down the seam and when safety Shawn Williams got over there a little late, Landry split them as they collided to finish off the 56-yard play. When Austin Seibert missed the extra point, the Bengals had a 20-16 lead.
But they had the ball for just 20 seconds. Boyd suffered his second drop of the half (just his eighth and ninth of the season, according to profootballfocus.com) and Dalton got sacked when safety Damarious Randall blitzed unabated for the hit.
Eifert, playing in his 16th game of the season for the first time in his career, suffered a stinger late in the first half, but returned.
Phillips made his third interception of the season on just the eighth ball thrown at him this season when Mayfield made a bad call and fired at the well-covered Landry on third-and-10. (They were third-and-10 because rookie middle linebacker Germaine Pratt dropped Chubb for a four-yard loss on first down during what looked to be one of his best games of the year.) Phillips went to his knees to pick it off, got up and took it 17 yards to the Browns 3.
Mixon took it from there on third-and-goal when he followed a big block by Michael Jordan on an interesting play call by Taylor. On second down he went with a heavy 'I" formation with Mixon dotting the I with tight end Cethan Carter in front of him and both were behind two extra offensive linemen. Mixon got nothing, but when they went back to five offensive linemen and one-back on the next snap, they still gave it to Mixon and he gave the Bengals a 13-7 lead with 4:45 left in the first quarter. Bullock missed his first extra point of the season when he hit the left upright.
Give Mixon credit for some great timing. He went over 1,000 on his third carry of the game and his longest run of the season, a vintage outside pitch on which the DBs wanted nothing to do with him. He made his buddy, cornerback Greedy Williams, miss, as well as the safety Randall. It was Williams that baited Mixon into a 15-yard penalty three weeks ago after Mixon bowled him over on his first run that day.
Mixon put the ball in the red zone, where the Bengals failed to score touchdowns on four of five trips inside the Cleveland 20 in the last game. But this time on their first red-zone snap of the day they scored a touchdown on Dalton's 15-yard slant to tight end C.J. Uzomah that tied the game at seven after a furious first 5:07.
The Bengals defense that was so good in Cleveland was as porous as the skies on the first drive, which had a bad start when D'Ernest Johnson ripped off the longest kick return against the Bengals this season with a 47-yarder to open the game. Then after Chubb pounded his way to a first down on two carries, Mayfield wasted no time going up top and hitting wide receiver Damion Ratley for a 46-yard touchdown 88 seconds into the thing. Ratley scored his first NFL touchdown racing past both the safety Williams and Phillips. Mayfield put it right over his shoulder into the end zone.
But the Bengals defense then calmed down. For some reason, the Browns ignored Chubb on the next series and that turned into a three-and-out highlighted by Dunlap chasing Mayfield out of bounds on first down with his 80th career sack. That set the tone and helped the Bengals get off the field on five of seven third downs in the half, none of 13 for the game.
View photos from the Bengals Week 17 matchup against the Cleveland Browns from Paul Brown Stadium.