CLEVELAND – This was a chance to seize early control in the AFC North, build momentum after an improbable win and beat a rival again.
This was Cincinnati's chance to prove all the championship talk is legitimate.
Instead, the Bengals stumbled. Don't they always?
Andy Dalton and the offense never got going and the Bengals defense couldn't stop hometown hero Brian Hoyer on two long scoring drives as the Cleveland Browns stunned Cincinnati 17-6 on Sunday.
For Dalton, it was an afternoon filled with frustration as the Bengals managed just two field goals one week after scoring 34 points in a comeback win over Green Bay.
"We didn't make enough plays," said Dalton, who finished 23 of 42 for 206 yards and an interception. "I didn't play well enough. I expect better out of the offense. To not score a touchdown, we've got too good of players and too good of a team not to do that. We have all the ability in the world on this team and we didn't get it done. That's the frustrating thing."
The 80th edition of the "Battle of Ohio" was rather one-sided.
Wide receiver A.J. Green was contained by Browns cornerback Joe Haden, and the Bengals (2-2) got little production from the rest of their playmakers.
Green had seven receptions for 51 yards, but never got far enough away from Haden to make a huge play. His longest catch went for 16 yards.
"Nothing special, nothing I haven't seen," Green said of Haden's blanket coverage. "We just couldn't connect. We didn't make the plays when we needed to. It's frustrating when you don't do anything on offense. You can't win games when you're not putting any points up."
Hoyer, the local kid who grew up dreaming of one day being Cleveland's quarterback, threw two touchdown passes in his first start at home to lead the revived Browns (2-2), who moved into a tie with Cincinnati and Baltimore atop the division.
The Bengals didn't overlook the Browns but following an emotional, gutty win over the Packers, Cincinnati didn't figure to have so many issues.
When they had opportunities, the Bengals, who were held to 266 total years, didn't capitalize on them. And when they needed to stop the Browns, Cleveland converted. Cincinnati finished 4 of 14 on third downs while the Browns went 9 of 18.
"The tale of the tape would be third downs, both defensively and offensively," coach Marvin Lewis said. "We just allowed too many third down conversions on defense and too few we didn't convert on offense. That was big."
Hoyer tossed a 1-yard TD pass to Chris Ogbonnaya with 4:54 left to give the Browns an 11-point lead before Cleveland turned it over to its vastly improved defense to put the Bengals away.
Dalton spent much of the day trying to avoid Cleveland's pass rush only to find his receivers covered down the field.
The Bengals were also done in by mistakes as penalties, dropped passes and blown assignments contributed to a tough loss.
"The biggest thing was we kept hurting ourselves," said Dalton, who recorded a 58.2 QB rating — his third-lowest in a regular-season game. "We'd have a big first down and we'd have a lost yardage play or a penalty. We never got things clicking for a whole drive."
Cincinnati's defense couldn't get off the field as Hoyer led the Browns on TD drives of 95 and 91 yards. It didn't help that the Bengals were missing two starters as cornerback Leon Hall and safety Reggie Nelson both sat out with hamstring injuries.
"We have to come out and play better," defensive tackle Domata Peko said. "It's a tough one for us, a little sad, but we have to play better. They outplayed us on third down. Their defense had two turnovers and we didn't have any."
In his second start in place of injured Brandon Weeden, Hoyer finished 25 of 38 for 269 yards and no interceptions. He threw a 2-yard TD pass in the first half to tight end Jordan Cameron, who had 10 catches for 91 yards.
Bengals safety Chris Crocker was stunned by Cameron's stats.
"He had 10 catches?" Crocker said. "Well, they were sneaky catches. I didn't see a lot of big plays."
He didn't see any from the Bengals either.
"They just played good defense," Green said. "It's just frustrating when you don't do anything on offense. You can't win games when you're not putting any points up."
Before leaving the locker room, Dalton said there's no sense in the Bengals looking back or dwelling on what went wrong. There's only one thing to do — keep going forward.
"We've got to do whatever it takes to fix the issues and move on," Dalton said. "We can't let this one hurt us next week."
NOTES: Cincinnati has lost three of its past four in Cleveland. ... Bengals RG Kevin Zeitler left with a foot injury in the first half but returned. ... LB Vontaze Burfict went out with a neck injury in the second half but came back and finished with a team-high 14 tackles. ... Cincinnati hosts New England next week before playing on the road at Buffalo and Detroit. ... The Bengals lead their series with the Browns 42-38.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org