The Browns beat Jeremy Hill and the Bengals to the punch in the running game.
As the Bengals tried to pick up the pieces of the most surprising and soul-searching loss in the Marvin Lewis Era Thursday night, 24-3 to the, yes, AFC North-leading Browns, they had the stunned car-wreck look.
They've suffered some blowouts. But not at home to an AFC North team when they were in first place in November
"This one right here has me speechless,' said wide receiver A.J. Green, after cornerback Joe Haden again worked his magic and left him with just three catches for 23 yards.
"Very embarrassing. You put all this work in during the week and to come out and play like this, it hurts. It hurts. I thought we had a great game plan. It hurts to put all that work in and lay an egg."
Cornerback Terence Newman, in his 12th NFL season, also found himself searching for the right words.
"We have to realize that after the first three games we thought we were a pretty good football team, but we're not nearly what we thought we were, obviously," Newman said. "To get outplayed like this at home? It's not something that feels good for sure. It's one that is going to have to be put behind us and make some corrections. It's really hard to put your finger on, to be honest with you."
The Green-Dalton Bengals were again deer caught in the prime-time lights. They are now 2-9 in prime time and playoff games and all quarterback Andy Dalton did with the worst game of his career when they needed him most was fail to close the door on the naysayers. After throwing three interceptions and unable to, as Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham so aptly put it, "throw the ball in the ocean," Dalton has now thrown eight TDs and 14 interceptions in those 11 games.
"We have to start fast," Dalton said. "It starts with me."
After watching his team lose a prime-time game for the 13th time in 15 tries, head coach Marvin Lewis finally let the frustration show. They were whacked, 43-17, in New England on a Sunday night 32 days ago and, again, a team that led the league's power rankings after the third week made America go to the remote. "It does confound me. It does. This was not ... this was different than New England, the last time we were this way," Lewis said. "For whatever reason, the two times this year, we haven't played very well. The one thing that comes out of both of those is turning the ball over. You can't do those things."
Safety George Iloka was at a loss.
"I don't know what is," he said. "I know we come out there with every intention. (but) we come out flat and it just progresses throughout the game. I don't know what it is, but we have to fix it."
Iloka did have a theory.
"It's a prime-time game. We want to win so badly and we have it up in our head and if one thing goes wrong, then some guys fold up," Iloka said. "Some guys say, 'Damn,' When it's not a prime-time game and we get down, we're not nervous. 'Let's fight our way back in it.'
"I don't think we're emotionally up and down. We're even keel. It's just in prime time it seems when something bad happens early, it's hard for us to recover."
The bad thing that happened early is that on the fifth play of the game, Dalton and tight end Jermaine Gresham failed to read each other's mind. Gresham stopped over the middle, Dalton's throw kept going into the arms of linebacker Craig Robertson at the Bengals 33. Robertson returned it to the 18 and five runs later the Browns were off, 7-0.
Asked if the interception started the deflation, Iloka said, "I'll reserve my comments, my thoughts," but said he said there wasn't any deflation after that play.
Whatever it was, Newman said the Bengals haven't responded well to adversity in their three losses.
"You know there is going to be some negative things (during a game) and the important thing is, how you handle those," Newman said. "I don't think we've handled them that well in the three games we've got blown out. That's definitely something we have to work on. Handling the negative things.
"And saying, 'Hey, we've got to focus on the next play,'" Newman said. "You can't keep talking about the last play."
The Browns stole the Bengals' game plan. The Bengals wanted to go downhill on the 30th ranked run defense, a spot they shared with the Bengals.
Instead, a Cleveland team that averaged 1.9 yards per carry the last three weeks against three of the NFL' s worst teams Jacksonville, Oakland, and Tampa Bay was able to run it 52 times for 170 yards after they ran it for 158 yards in the previous 12 quarters.
"We haven't done a good job stopping the run," Iloka said. "That's what we haven't been doing well and that's what they should be doing and we gave up too many rushing yards again. We can't do that as a defense. It's going to take all 11 guys. Can't do it with seven anymore. Everyone has to do it with discipline."
The questions are now about personnel shakeups and major changes and Newman wonders.
"It would be one thing if it was the first time we got handled like this," Newman said. "What shakeup do you do? What do you shake up? You could try it, but who says that is going to work? I think we just have to go back to the drawing board."
Lewis says the loss should be a shakeup enough.
"The attention-grabber is just that we'll get back to work," Lewis said. "We do things the way we're supposed to do it most of the time, but tonight every time we didn't do it right, (and) it was taken advantage of."
And he knows prime-time questions are going to persist.
"The energy was there and the focus was there, but we've got to make sure we direct it in the right directions. That's all," Lewis said. "We've got to make sure we direct it in our execution and direct it in what we're doing on offense and defense and special teams. It's got to be directed — it just can't be running around crazy. We get the penalty, we make a long run and lose a ball up in the air — those kinds of things. We aren't together — the quarterback and receiver on the route, on the first interception. We can't have those things."