The Bengals scored the first five times they had the ball Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium and kept the winless Browns at bay with their best rushing effort of the season in a 30-16 victory that kept their post-season hopes alive at 5-6 with the AFC North-leading Steelers invading next week.
Rookie running back Joe Mixon enjoyed the first 100-yard day of his career with 114 yards on 23 carries and he followed fullback Ryan Hewitt and left tackle Cerdic Ogbuehi on a pitch left for an 11-yard touchdown run with 2:57 left that provided Dave Lapham's coffin nails. On the previous snap Mixon rumbled up the middle behind a combo block from his linemen for 14 yards, but that only came after Browns safety Jabrill Peppers was called for hitting defenseless wide receiver Josh Malone on a go route down the left sideline on third-and-five from the Browns 40.
The Bengals were out-snapped (67-59) and out-yardaged (405-361) but a season-high 152 rushing yards allowed them to pull away.
The Bengals went up 23-6 on their first series of the second half when quarterback Andy Dalton's play-action fake left tight end Tyler Kroft available in the right corner of the end for Dalton's second touchdown of the day. on a one-yard throw 4:39 into the half.
But they'll have to play better against the run next week when the firm of Ben, Bell, & Brown arrives. Late in the third quarter Cleveland had rushed for 142 yards on more than five yards a pop and were driving down, 23-9, when they inexplicably tried a play-action pass on third-and-one. Bengals Pro Bowl defensive Geno Atkins blew it up slanting in to stand up quarterback DeShone Kizer and nose tackle Pat Sims finished him off to force a punt.
The Browns went off for 169 rushing yards, but the Bengals' season-long Achilles' heel of giving up big passes on long-distance downs made this one score game with 6:57 left. The Browns went on 15 plays and 89 yards when they converted on third-and-10, second-and-16, fourth-and-one, and scored when Kizer ran in a draw from three yards out on fourth down to cut it to 23-16 with 6:57 left.
Kizer found wide receiver Kenny Britt in a zone for 38 yards on third-and-10 and second-and-16 wide receiver Rashard Higgins was wide open across the middle for 22 yards.
The Bengals' red-zone woes at PBS continued into the first half, but they rode three Randy Bullock field goals and 96 yards rushing to take a 16-6 half-time lead, which were the most rushing yards they've had in a game since their season-high of 110 on Sept. 24 in Green Bay.
But it was 16-3 when Kizer got the 29th-ranked offense back on the field worh 2:06 left and for the fifth time in six games the Bengals gave up a field goal in the final 23 seconds, this time when rookie Zane Gonzalez hit a 21-yarder at the gun.
And the Bengals helped because they called a timeout thinking they could get Cleveland off the field on third-and-12. But Kizer converted for 14 yards to Britt in another zone and then he hit tight end Seth DeValve for a 25-yard gash as he ran past limping linebacker Nick Vigil. Vigil then left with that nagging ankle injury that pretty much sidelined him for the game.
The Bengals, 3-for-16 scoring red-zone touchdowns at PBS this season after the first half, were 1-for-3 in the red zone in the first half. One shot ended when Browns rookie right end Myles Garrett bull-rushed left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi into Dalton and Bullock converted a 31-yarder early in the second quarter to make it 10-3.
Dalton, just seven of 13 passing in the half for 98 yards and 18 of 28 for 214 for the game, saw favorite target A.J. Green bracketed much of the half and targeted him just three times with his one catch a 15-yard slant with about seven minutes left in the half. Green finished with five catches for 66 yards.
But the running game showed up for the first time since Green Bay. With 54 yards on 11 carries in the first half, Mixon tracked his career-high 62 yards.
With Kizer getiing checked for a concussion in the middle of the second quarter, Cody Kessler was introduced to the post-Joe Thomas era at left tackle on third down when rookie right end Carl Lawson hauled him down for a sack with help from tackle Chris Smith. The Bengals had four sacks on the day led by Lawson's 1.5.
That forced a punt and what a better way for Adam Jones to celebrate Saturday night's birth of Adam Bernard Jones Jr.? And for a brief, scintillating moment it looked Jones had his first return touchdown since he went all the way against the Browns in the 2012 PBS opener. He wriggled out of a tackle on the right sideline before crawling up teammate Clayton Fejedelem's back, pushing off him and riding cornerback William Jackson's crushing block on punter Britton Colquitt into the end for a 55-yarder.
But rookie tight end Cethan Carter's penalty for a block in the back wiped it out. The Bengals did take advantage of the drive start at the Cleveland 49 with Bullock's longest field goal of the season a 49-yarder that made it 13-3 with 6:12 left in the half. Colquitt had to come out and missed a punt that Gonzalez hit for just 16 yards before he returned.
They went up 16-3 when Bullock hit a 21-yarder that was set up by the Bengals' longest play of the day, a 36-yard screen to Mixon that became available when the Browns blitzed their linebackers and the middle was wide open, particularly after Dalton faked a handoff to Mixon.
The worst running attack in the NFL rustled on the first drive when Mixon (29 yards) and Giovani Bernard (an 11-yard draw) to go with a three-yard Dalton scramble and suddenly they had 43 yards rushing after getting just 49 last week in the win in Denver. They were trying to hit their season-high of 110 yards, end a seven-game drought they haven't hit more than 86 and top 58 to end a four-game struggle.
They also had a 7-3 lead. But it was two big catches by slot receiver Tyler Boyd that made the drive possible. On third-and-10 Bernard picked up the blitz, Dalton got the ball out of his hand quickly to hit Boyd and he dove at the stick to get the first down.
Then when Mixon bolted up the midle for his longest run in November on a 19-yarder to put the ball on the Cleveland 8, Dalton went play-action and found Boyd running down the seam for Boyd's first touchdown of the season with about five minutes left in the first quarter.
The Bengals played as advertised in the red zone when they held the Browns to Gonzalez's 27-yard field goal just 5:43 into the game. And they could thank an offensive pass interference call on tight end David Njoku that wiped out a first down from the Bengals 8.
It was an unnerving drive with Browns running backs Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson racking up 50 yards on seven carries simply blasting up the middle with three of the runs going for more than 10 yards. Throw in a 15-yard penalty on linebacker Vontaze Burfict for hitting a defenseless receiver and it was far from pretty.
But, as they have all year, the Bengals were tough when they saw red. In the previous five games, the Bengals allowed just 10 touchdowns on 25 red-zone shots and on Sunday's first stand they made it 10-for-26 when Kizer went with a check-down pass on third down.
The defense did it again on the next series but this time they gave up no points when Gonzalez went wide left on a 43-yard field goal try. They again got a lift from a huge penalty flag after giving up Kizer's 44-yard bomb to wide receiver Corey Coleman racing past cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick down the right sideline on third-and-eight. Kizer did take a shot as he delivered the ball, but the true blow was a 15-yard taunting call on wide receiver Bruce Treggs after a first-and-10 at the Bengals 20.
Cincinnati Bengals host the Cleveland Browns at Paul Brown Stadium in week 12 of the regular season.