Eager to return home to Paul Brown Stadium and get past the back-to-back overtime losses that shrunk their lead in the AFC North Division, the Cincinnati Bengals instead opened the 81st Battle of Ohio with their worst quarter of the year.
Then they answered it with arguably the best quarter in franchise history.
With two touchdowns on offense, one each on defense and special teams and a field-goal topper Sunday afternoon, the Bengals exploded for a 31-point second quarter that erased a 13-point deficit and led to a 41-20 trouncing of Cleveland.
“I guess we will continue to major in thrilling,” Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis said after his team was able to overcome a double-digit deficit for the third consecutive week.
“We showed great resilience, perseverance and the ability to come back today,” Lewis added. “At some point you have to rise up and play in all three phases of the game. Our defense and special teams gave our offense a lift and got them going today.”
The win, coupled with Baltimore’s overtime loss at Chicago, gives the Bengals (7-4) a 2 ½-game division lead on Cleveland, Baltimore and Pittsburgh, all of which are 4-6.
But for the first 15 minutes Sunday, it looked as though Cincinnati would be limping into its bye week on a three-game losing streak when Browns cornerback Joe Haden intercepted Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton on back-to-back throws, returning the second one for a 29-yard touchdown and a 13-0 lead with 2:19 left in the first quarter.
A three-and-out followed for the Bengals offense, which finished the first quarter with 30 total yards, zero first downs and two turnovers.
But in the closing seconds of the quarter, Cincinnati linebacker James Harrison intercepted a Jason Campbell pass that was deflected by Michael Johnson and returned it 21 yards for a touchdown. The score was wiped out by a penalty, but not the momentum swing. Dalton hit Jermaine Gresham with a 25-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the second quarter and the ice was broken.
“That changed the whole momentum of the game,” Bengals cornerback Adam Jones said.
The Bengals defense responded with a three-and-out, and Shawn Williams partially blocked a Spencer Lanning punt, setting up a Dalton 6-yard touchdown pass to Mohamed Sanu for a 14-13 lead. Then Jayson DiMache blocked a Lanning punt that Tony Dye returned 24 yards for a TD, and Vontaze Burfict forced a Chris Ogbonnaya fumble and returned it 13 yards for a score, giving the Bengals 28 points in a span of 12 minutes and 7 seconds.
Mike Nugent added a 41-yard field goal with one second left before halftime to set the Bengals franchise record with 31 points in a quarter.
“I haven’t seen anything like that, with that amount of scoring and it not coming from the offensive side of the ball,” Harrison said.
The Bengals went into the locker room with a 31- 13 lead and only three first downs. They finished the game with just 224 total yards and were 1-of-14 on third down. Dalton was just 13-of-27 passing for 93 yards. And A.J. Green, who came into the game with five consecutive games of 100-plus receiving yards, finished with just two catches for 7 yards.
“The defense and special teams really helped us out,” Green said.
The defense intercepted Browns quarterback Jason Campbell three times and recorded four sacks. The Browns were just 4-of-18 on third down and 1-of-4 on fourth down.
“We were not able to overcome the second quarter, and the game got away from us at that point,” Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said. “I felt good about how we came out and played in the first quarter, although I wish we could have put the ball in the end zone the two times we were down there. I give Cincinnati credit because they stayed with it and continued to play.”
The Browns will play host to Pittsburgh next week in a de facto elimination game. The Bengals follow their bye week with a trip to San Diego on Dec. 1.
“The only thing you can hope for going into the ending month of the season is that you have the opportunity to control your destiny,” Harrison said. “And right now we have that opportunity.”