CLEVELAND_ Joe Mixon, the best player on the field Sunday in the Bengals' feast-of-frustration 27-19 loss to the Browns, exchanged No. 28 for a T-Shirt that featured two dripping ice cream cones for the flight back to Cincinnati.
The shirt fit. Sunday was a drip-drip-drip day of frustration for the Bengals and Mixon.
Penalties. Red Zone miscues. Third down whiffs.
Head coach Zac Taylor admitted in frustration the pass interference call on cornerback William Jackson III courtesy of a review looking at safety Jessie Bates III's interception has him unclear on the enforcement of the rule. Taylor boiled over when wide receiver John Ross was called for a hold on what would have been Mixon's 34-yard run, a net loss of 27 yards.
Ross disputed it, too.
"I had him in his chest. The reason why it maybe looked like I was holding was he tried to get away at the last second and Joe ran by him already," Ross said.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
Mixon, with a career-best 146 yards, had the best game by a Bengals back since Jeremy Hill went for 168 against these Browns three years ago in their biggest offensive display of the season.
It was Mixon who set the tone for another grimy Battle of Ohio, complete with old-fashioned trash talking. Mixon's 26-yard run on the second play of the game in introduced Browns rookie cornerback Greedy Williams to the series and knocked him over.
A few minutes later Williams was all over him even after a two-yard run and Mixon offered a semi head butt to get some breathing room that got flagged and started to set another tone. The Bengals, who came in with the fewest penalty yards in the NFL, ended up with 99.
"I do remember that that was him being ran over," Mixon said. "Like I said, "I'm sure their game was to get me out of the game. That's probably what it was. But like I said, man, I've got to be aware of stuff like that. As the game went on and as I apologized to my teammates, I was definitely more aware and the game definitely, at least for me, went more smooth in that regard. They tried a little bit again, but don't fall for the bait. And the first one, I did. But I learned my lesson. You just got to, like I said, be aware of situations and got to get right."
Drip. Drip. Drip.
It was the most frustrating day of this most frustrating season. The Bengals got more yards, won the turnover margin for the first time this season, outrushed one of the best backfields in the league and had the ball five more minutes than the Browns Sunday and still got beat.
But it was no mystery why. Not only did the least penalized team have 99 yards, but the fourth worst red-zone team failed four out of five times to score a touchdown once inside the 20 that included an ugly goal-line sack. And they missed nine of 12 third downs.
"(We have to be) disciplined. You know, they got us on third down, on both sides of the ball we were not good enough on third down," said Taylor after his first Battle of Ohio lived up the name, including the chippiness. "Really that's kind of what the game boiled down to."
The Bengals and Browns did what frustrated teams do and jawed back and forth and that made it even more frustrating for the Bengals. They knew the Browns were going to yap.
"That's what they do," Bates said. "We talked about it in the team meeting room. We knew they were going to be chirping a lot. We knew they were going to be penalized a lot and unfortunately we were kind of the same team today on the penalty side."
Sure, Browns running back Nick Chubb, the NFL's leading rusher, killed them with a 57-yard run. But he had 49 yards on his other 14 carries. Yes, the Browns converted nearly 60 percent of their third downs. But Superman had only two catches for 39 yards and won't Odell Beckham Jr. be miserable to live with this week?
No, it was the offense that was left to wonder how it could not score more than one TD on five red-zone trips. The players were left to ponder the lack of execution.
"They had a good coverage for the play that we had," said Dalton, saying he can't take a sack on first down from the 2. "Yeah, that's what it came down to."
The coaches were left to get asked about play-calls. They ran 16 red-zone snaps and Mixon carried seven times.
But not on this sequence, where Mixon had just got the first down at the Browns 2 with 5:34 left in the third quarter down 21-13. On first down they went funky instead of ferocious. They split Mixon out as a receiver with wide receiver Alex Erickson in the backfield and Mixon tried to run a pick play in the end zone with wide receiver Tyler Boyd and quarterback Andy Dalton took the sack when Bryan Cox beat left tackle Cordy Glenn.
Not in the game was wide receiver Auden Tate, one of their best red-zone targets, out with a knee injury.
"Next man up. We're used to that kind of stuff. Adjusting on the fly," Taylor said. "He's a good red zone target for us, but we have other guys ready to step up. We just have to do a better job of executing to get points on the board.
"There are a lot of options there on first and goal from the two. We are not anticipating a sack, but that's football. That's the way it goes. We can't second-guess ourselves there. We felt good about the position we would be in. They did a good job covering it. Unfortunately, we were in a second and long. That's life."
That's life for Mixon right now. A big game in a loss while other things collapsed around him. He now has 789 yards. If averages 70 in the last three games he'll get a back-to-back 1,000-yard season.
"I don't care how many yards I rush for I want to win. That's my attitude on it and it wasn't enough," Mixon said. "There was a lot of stuff that was involved with it and a lot of stuff that we can't control."
One thing he felt he could control, he thought, was the execution. That's why he was storming around after that blown sack sequence ended in a field goal. He wasn't griping about not getting the ball.
"At the end of the day, coach called his call and we've to deliver," Mixon said. "I'm never going to talk bad or talk down on a play call. At the end of the day .. Zac called it and we've got to deliver for him. And we didn't. We didn't execute that play. I'm sure if he probably takes it back, I'm sure it probably would have led to something different. But at the end of the day, what's called is called and we've got to execute. And we didn't do that."
Mixon and Boyd shook their heads. They said the Browns defense did nothing different in the red zone. Neither was Mixon. He's playing the way he's played for the last month, showing why he's the defending AFC rushing champion. Like that marvelous jump cut for a seven-yard gain, one of their only positive plays in the red zone.
Right tackle Bobby Hart loves blocking for him.
"It's fun. He's so physical," Hart said. "He runs so well for a big back to be as fast as he is. He does a great job. Guys don't want to tackle him. It's always good to see us be the reason why he's able to do those things. You never want to be the reason why he's not able to play to the best of his ability."
Even when Mixon got the penalty.
"He is getting after it, and I love it," Hart said. "He has high intensity. He wants to score every play. He wants to let people know that they cannot tackle him. I love it."
Mixon wasn't backing down. It was chippy out there. A lot of yapping. "They kind of do that," Mixon said. He said he wasn't surprised they came after him.
"Not, really," Mixon said. "At the end of the day, I've got to know better. The best thing about this, like I said, they get to come to us. That's what I'm happy about and I'm excited about and I can't wait.
"Next time when they come to Cincy, we are going to be ready for them."