“Sloppy, sloppy,” said CBS color analyst Adam Archuletta in reference to today’s contest between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Cleveland Browns. Sloppy, sloppy was right. I don’t mean to complain, and I’m ecstatic that the Bengals finally got that Brown elephant off their back, but can we up the production value? Geez.
It certainly wasn’t a fun game to watch. Between all the penalties, stuffed run plays and the excruciating time-suck that was several coaching challenges, it seemed like the general strategy for the Browns was to bore the Bengals and Paycor Stadium into submission. Thankfully, their plan backfired. Hopefully head referee Jerome Boger has a good ice pack ready, because he’s going to be awfully sore tomorrow after throwing up all those holding calls.
In between all the flying yellow flags were a series of plays that contributed to the overall strangeness of the game. On the Browns first drive of the game, instead of taking the near-sure-thing that is the QB-sneak with a yard to go, the Browns went for the endzone and turned the ball over on downs. In the third quarter, the Bengals ran a reverse play for Ja’Marr Chase that looked dead-on-arrival. Once again, Joe Burrow had an interception versus Cleveland that was a result of a tipped pass.
It was an ugly game, but the Bengals did just enough on offense and defense to win. Players stepped up on both sides of the ball, the Bengals run defense was top notch, and the Joe-to-Ja’Marr was as spectacular as ever. The Bengals never really had what you would call a “comfortable” lead, but they kept the Browns at arm's length for most of the day.
Maybe this is just the Grand Bargain that the Bengals made with the football gods to keep defeating the Kansas City Chiefs. No other team has the Chiefs number like the Bengals, and no team has the Bengals number, at least since Burrow took over in 2020, like the Browns. But hey, a win is a win, and even if the Bengals are destined to be in nasty, nail-biters with the Browns until the end of time, deep playoff runs, and Super Bowl appearances are worthy compensation.
As has become customary over the Bengals last ten-ish games or so, unheralded players continue to make plays in the critical moments. There was Trent Taylor, who stepped up for an injured Tyler Boyd to have a fabulous catch-and-run to set up a Semaje Perine (who else) touchdown run. There was Trenton Irwin, who continued to be a revelation with a humongous 45-yard touchdown off a flea-flicker in the third quarter. And, of course, there was the defense, which made life miserable for the Browns throughout the day.
But the Bengals stars stepped up, too. Joe-to-Ja’Marr was automatic, even though Chase was being covered by Browns Pro Bowl corner Denzel Ward nearly the entire game. Stud nose tackle D.J. Reader was a one-man-wrecking crew, nearly single-handedly suffocating the Browns run game and making himself a household name in the process. On the back end, safety Jesse Bates III jumped a route and came up with a critical interception.
This was a very important game for the Bengals - not just because they finally got over the hump and beat the Browns, but because the schedule (I probably don’t need to tell you) doesn’t let up from here. Here’s the Bengals next four games: at Tampa Bay, at New England, home versus Buffalo, home versus Baltimore.
Beating Cleveland wasn’t a win to write home about, but it kept the Bengals on the postseason-track. Sometimes, and especially this late in the season, that’s all you need. And this Bengals team understands that better than anybody.