Joe Burrow had just completed one of the most stirring performances in franchise history by becoming the first Bengals rookie quarterback to throw for 400 yards when he hit a staggering 75 percent of his 47 passes Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
But since Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield had just won the game with an equally staggering 21 straight passes before a spike set up his fifth touchdown pass with 11 seconds left to pull out a 37-34 victory, Burrow ended up tipping his hat to his fellow Heisman winner and overall No. 1 pick.
"He played unbelievable. That last drive was impressive. I thought we had him, and he was able to get the ball off and not get sacked," said Burrow of Carl Lawson's near miss, "Hats off to him, he played great."
Burrow, now on pace to break Andrew Luck's NFL rookie record for passing yards in 2012 after his 406-yard day was the 10th most prolific in Bengaldom, was not thinking about his own three touchdowns. He pondered his end zone interception on the first drive of the game to set the tone for a day that would take the Bengals in the red zone seven times for just four touchdowns. He was also thinking about his lost fumble on a sack strip.
"I had two turnovers. I have to stop doing that," Burrow said. "I've had a turnover in three straight games. I can't do that."
It was left to others to praise Burrow, a game away from another NFL rookie record, six 300-yard-games.
Give it to Mayfield after he basically hit on his last 22 passes to become the first quarterback to throw five touchdowns against the Bengals since the Browns own Derek Anderson in 2007. He did come in here two years ago and acted boorishly preening and dancing through a win, but on Sunday he said some classy words for Burrow after it was done.
"He is an incredible leader, He elevates his team," Mayfield said. "You can see it now. I think he is going to be very successful for a long time. It is always fun to watch a guy like that take over. It is fun to watch. Joe is a great player and a great leader, and I told him that."
Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said it a lot more simply:
_The game doesn't have to end like it starts. Mayfield started it by underthrowing his first pass on wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr.'s go route down the sideline. Bengals cornerback Darius Phillips, who picked off Mayfield twice in last year's finale, did it again. He made a nice play screeching to a stop, coming back for the ball and taking it 21 yards the other way to set up the Bengals' first touchdown.
Plus, that was it for Beckham, who injured his knee trying to tackle Phillips. But Mayfield took dead aim with both Bengals starting cornerbacks (William Jackson III and Trae Waynes) out and not getting touched by a pass rush that nicked him three times but never sacked him.
On that last drive, Phillips failed to keep the clock going when he allowed the Browns, with no timeouts, to roll out of bounds. Then wide receiver Rashard Higgins went over him for a 30-yard gain. That got Mayfield to the Bengals 24, where he re-paid Phillips and floated the same route he threw to Beckham to someone named Donovan Peoples-Jones with 11 seconds left. Phillips was in front of him, tried to time it and it seemed to go right through his hands for Peoples-Jones' first NFL touchdown on a day he got his first three pro catches for 56 yards.
"Those guys made unbelievable plays. Higgy on the contested catch going up the high-pointing the ball. Donovan going up to the line of scrimmage and have a vertical seam called. Number 23 (Phillips) got me earlier in the game and I had to get him back," Mayfield said. "We got on the field, and everyone was talking about how we had to get to the 30 for a field goal. I told the guys, 'Screw that. We are going to win. No need to settle for that. Just go do our job."
But on the first play of that drive, Lawson nearly ended it all. Mayfield somehow bounced off him, stepped up and found Peoples-Jones.
"(We had) a sack; if we could just finish on," Taylor said. "They've got the clock running. They're in disarray. He (Mayfield) pulls out of it and finds a completion. Then he gets some one-on-one situations … Last week, it was a bunch of zone coverage and they had some good success, so we put a bit of man coverage, (and) they won some one-on-one opportunities. That's just the way it goes, and it's unfortunate it went down that way.""
_The Bengals pumped out 468 yards, the second most under Taylor, and they did much of it with a re-tooled offensive line and without running back Joe Mixon. They still scrounged out 81 yards on the ground, Burrow's 34 on six sneaks, scrambles and draws nearly matching running back Giovani Bernard's leading 37 on 13 carries.
Late in the first half they lost left tackle Jonah Williams (neck, replaced by Fred Johnson) and center Trey Hopkins (concussion, replaced by Billy Price). Then with the Bengals at the Browns 6 at the two-minute warning and down, 31-27, right tackle Bobby Hart went out with what appeared to be a leg injury. For the last three snaps, rookie Hakeem Adeniji went to left tackle and Johnson to right.
How good were they? Burrow didn't get sacked in the second half after Myles Garrett got two of the four in the first half, one each against Williams and Johnson.
Taylor couldn't ever remember losing three linemen in a game and he was quick to praise a group that has been embattled. Not only that, but they lost one of their best run blockers when tight end Cethan Carter woke up Sunday with his shoulder bothering him, the one that was surgically repaired two years ago.
"This is a resilient group as you've ever been around. No one can see it because no one comes in the locker room, and no one's going to say it because we can't win," Taylor said. "But it's as resilient a group as I've ever been around, and they just have faith in the next man up. The next man ... come in and make a play, we're counting on you to do your job.
"I'm just really impressed with the backups that came in the game on limited reps (in practice), even Mason Schreck. Cethan (Carter) woke up this morning and couldn't go. Mason Schreck had no idea that was coming his way, and he stepped up and was our second tight end. We had a big tight end with Fred (Johnson), and then he had to move to left tackle and then to right tackle, so we lost that. But the guys just kept their heads up and kept chugging along. I think we had only two turnovers — I don't think we ever punted, if I remember correctly. They just kept getting the job done."
_After he tied his career-high with 11 catches, slot receiver Tyler Boyd's 101 yards led a balanced effort that saw six players catch at least 52 yards. Throw in his 16-yard toss on a double pass for Giovani Bernard's screen play, and he had a better passer rating than Burrow, 118.8-112.5.
_No mystery here. Last week in Indy Colts quarterback Philip Rivers threw his team back into a 21-0 deficit when the Bengals' pass rush never got him off his spot. Mayfield kept the Browns in it by slicing the Bengals from the pocket. One sack and six hits in two games is all the pass rush has yielded.
Defensive tackle Geno Atkins didn't start again for the third straight week as they try to bring him back cautiously from his shoulder injury. And they're still trying to find a fit for veteran end Carlos Dunlap in a revamped alignment he continues to express frustration.
"We just handle that internally," Taylor said. "We've got to do a better job up front (with) just everybody getting (more) pressure on the passer."
For the second straight game with Sam Hubbard injured, Lawson and Amani Bledsoe started on the edge.