John Clay

John Clay: Bengals were bad, Dalton was worse

CINCINNATI — It was bad from the very first series, when Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton threw a short pass for tight end Jermaine Gresham that went directly to Cleveland linebacker Craig Robertson and really, honestly, it didn't get any better after that for the home team.

Turn on the lights and Marvin Lewis' club gets all discombobulated. On Oct. 5, a Sunday night in New England, the Bengals got pounded 43-17 by the Patriots. On Thursday night at Paul Brown Stadium, the Bengals got pounded 24-3 by the Cleveland Browns.

"We got our tails beat," Lewis said afterward.

Prime time is not the right time, not for the Bengals, who have now lost 13 of their past 15 prime-time games. Confounding?

"That does confound me," Lewis said. "This was different. For whatever reason, two times now (this year) we didn't play well."

What was different this time? The Bengals were at home, Lewis said. They entered the game with energy and excitement. He thought they were focused, but "you have to direct your focus in the right direction."

Now, let's talk Browns, who snapped a 17-game divisional road losing streak and, better still, have stamped themselves as legitimate playoff contenders. Cleveland is 6-3, its best start since 1994. A fellow by the name of Bill Belichick coached the Browns then.

Part of Thursday night had to do with Cleveland, which played an efficient game on both sides of the ball. The Browns' up-tempo offense kept the Bengals off balance, and Cleveland's defense came up with several big plays.

But there's probably no way to overstate just how poorly the Bengals, now 5-3-1, performed in the first Battle of Ohio in which both teams had winning records this late in the season since 1986.

There's probably no way to overstate how poorly Dalton played, except for this embarrassing number: 2.0. That was his passer rating. That is not a misprint. That is ridiculous. Dalton completed just 10 of 33 passes for 86 yards, with no touchdowns and three interceptions. Thus his almost unheard-of passer rating.

"I've got to play better," Dalton said. "That's obvious."

Was it the wind? The cold? The lights? The prime-time audience?

"The conditions had nothing to do with it," Dalton said. "I missed a couple early, and we never could get into a rhythm."

Before this fiasco, the lowest passer rating by a quarterback who led his team in passing in a game this season was Philip Rivers' 31.0 last Sunday, when San Diego lost at Miami 34-0.

Before this fiasco, Dalton's lowest passing rating was 40.8, against San Francisco in 2011, the third game of Dalton's rookie season.

Thursday night under the lights, his passes were high, low, overthrown and underthrown. Some of the tosses were so far off target I wondered if he had another receiver, one I couldn't quite pick out, in mind.

First five possessions, Cincinnati produced two turnovers and a 25-yard punt. The punt set up Cleveland's second touchdown.

You name it, the Bengals did it. They were called for an ineligible player down field on a fourth-quarter screen pass. Marshall Newhouse, subbing for Andre Smith at right tackle, was called for holding twice in the first half.

"We played bad football," rookie running back Jeremy Hill said, summing it up nicely.

To be fair, the Bengals were without some major players. Inactive were Giovani Bernard, Vontaze Burfict, Leon Hall and Andre Smith, all starters.

That doesn't matter in the standings of the AFC North, pro football's most competitive division. All four teams have winning records. All four teams have either three or four losses.

"The good thing is," said Andy Dalton, "this only counts one."