For a struggling NFL club coming off back-to-back road losses, a visit from the league’s worst team is just what the doctor ordered. The Cleveland Browns are chicken noodle soup for their opponents’ soul.
Then again, you do actually have to go out and beat the Browns. They don’t award you the victory merely for showing up, you know. And that’s just what the Cincinnati Bengals did on Sunday, winning the Battle of Ohio 31-17 thanks in large part to a big number of big plays.
Bengals running back Jeremy Hill popped a 40-yard run on the game’s first possession. Brandon LaFell caught a 44-yard TD pass from Andy Dalton in the second quarter. The amazing A.J. Green, a member of his elementary school’s juggling team, made a circus 48-yard touchdown catch off a Hail Mary pass just before halftime. (More on that later.) Then, when Cleveland pulled within 21-17 in the third quarter, Hill raced 74 yards for a score.
By afternoon’s end, the big-play Bengals had gained 559 total yards, their most in a regulation game since 584 yards against Houston on Dec. 17, 1989. That was the Houston Oilers.
On just nine carries, Hill rushed for 168 yards, the most by a Bengals running back since Cedric Benson gained 189 on Nov. 25, 2009. Green caught eight passes for 169 yards. LaFell grabbed four passes for 83 yards. Dalton completed 19 of 28 passes for 308 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. His passer rating of 128.3 was a season high.
“We needed a game like this,” LaFell said.
To be fair, there has been a lot of meat in the Bengals’ early-season diet. They lost at Pittsburgh, never an easy venue. They lost at home to the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. With surprise quarterback sensation Dak Prescott, Dallas is among the hottest teams in the league. New England is New England, and last week was Tom Brady’s first home game of the season. Odds were stacked.
From here on out, the schedule gets somewhat softer. Next Sunday, the Bengals play Washington in London. Then there is a bye week before a trip to New York to play the Giants, followed by a home game against Buffalo.
First, though, the Bengals had to regain some confidence in their running game. They entered Sunday 23rd in the league in rushing yards per game. They responded by rushing for 271 yards, their best showing since 2000.
“You can really feed off of it,” Dalton said of running the ball well. “You’re going to get different looks from the defense and it’s going to open up the passing game.”
The play of the day happened when no one was open. Seven seconds before halftime, Bengals up 14-10, ball on the Cleveland 48, Dalton uncorked a Hail Mary toward the end zone and hoped for the best.
His strategy? “I just put a bunch of air under it and throw it really high and let everybody get down there,” he said. “Then it’s a free-for-all, and hopefully our guys come up with it.”
Green came up with it amid the chaos, but only after juggling it on his fingertips before securing it to his body.
“I was just trying to make a play,” he said. “That was definitely a momentum swing for us.”
A momentum swing on the season is what the Bengals hoped they accomplished Sunday. Yes, it was against the now 0-7 Browns, but it was a win. Now it’s on to jolly ol’ England.
“We’re not going to London,” Coach Marvin Lewis said. “We’re playing the Redskins and it happens to be in London.”
Bengals vs. Redskins
Where: Wembley Stadium in London
Kickoff: 9:30 a.m. Sunday
Cincinnati Bengals 2016
Cleveland Browns 2016