The Cleveland Browns took full advantage of Andy Dalton's off-target showing Thursday night, dominating the Cincinnati Bengals while surging to a 24-3 lead through three quarters of their AFC North showdown.
The game marked the first since 1986 — when Bernie Kosar and Boomer Esiason were the quarterbacks — that the intrastate rivals played with first place on the line so late in the season. The Browns won that one 34-3.
And they were in charge right from the start of this one, too.
Playing in a cold, gusty wind, Dalton was repeatedly off-target and made a big early mistake. His first pass was high and incomplete. His next one was intercepted by linebacker Craig Robertson, who returned it to the 18. Five plays later, Ben Tate went into the end zone from 4 yards for the lead.
It was the start of a dreadful first half for Dalton, who was 5 of 16 for 38 yards in the first half and repeatedly got booed by the crowd at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals managed only 100 yards in the half.
Two mistakes by Cleveland helped the Bengals cut it to 7-3. Jim Leonhard fumbled a punt, and Buster Skrine's pass interference penalty on fourth-and-10 extended the drive. Mike Nugent connected on a 43-yard field goal.
The Browns straightened up after that turnover. The Bengals kept making mistakes.
Kevin Huber's 25-yard punt into the wind set up a 59-yard touchdown drive by the Browns, highlighted by Brian Hoyer's completions of 17 and 22 yards to Travis Benjamin. Isaiah Crowell carried the last two yards for a 14-3 lead early in the second quarter.
Cleveland wanted to get its running game back on track after three subpar games. The Browns ran for 81 yards in the first half, controlling the ball and the tempo. Billy Cundiff's 32-yard field goal made it 17-3 at halftime.
It was Cleveland's biggest halftime lead in Cincinnati since 1994, when the Browns won 28-20.
The Browns essentially put it away late in the third quarter when Hoyer completed a 28-yard pass to tight end Gary Barnidge in the middle of tight coverage. Terrance West dived in from 1 yard out for a 24-3 lead that sent some Bengals fans to the exits.
There was an honored guest for the game — 4-year-old Leah Still, who is fighting cancer and flew in from Philadelphia to see her father play for the first time. Bengals defensive tackle Devon Still has worked with the team to raise more than $1 million for research and treatment of pediatric cancer.
Strong wrote "Leah Strong" on the eye black strip across his face, and police officers at the game had his No. 75 on the back of their uniforms. The team presented a check to Children's Hospital in Cincinnati after the first quarter with Leah on the field.
Both Ohio teams were trying to make headway against their history of struggling in such games.
The Browns hadn't won an AFC North game on the road since 2008, dropping 17 in a row. Their last road win in the division game came in Cincinnati, a 20-12 victory on Sept. 28, 2008.
The Bengals have been horrid in high-profile games, going 18-40 in prime time including a 43-17 loss in New England on Sunday night this season.
Which one would finally break free from their recent form?
Both teams were missing some of their top players to injuries because of the limited time to recover from Sunday games.
The Bengals had two reserves starting at linebacker in place of Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga. Running back Giovani Bernard was out for a second straight game with a sore shoulder and hip. Right tackle Andre Smith was inactive with a sprained left ankle. And cornerback Leon Hall was recovering from a concussion.
Cleveland was missing tight end Jordan Cameron to a concussion and leading receiver Andrew Hawkins, who had a sore knee and thigh. Cornerback Justin Gilbert left in the first quarter with a heel injury and was questionable to return.
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