CINCINNATI — Meaningful turned maddening. Relevant became ridiculous. A chance for first place devolved into a fight to stay out of last.
All in a historically horrid second quarter that made last week’s talk of the Browns being in playoff contention seem premature, if not absurd.
The Bengals scored a franchise-record 31 points in the second quarter and regained control of the AFC North with a 41-20 victory Sunday at a windy, ominous, then soaked Paul Brown Stadium.
“It’s really frustrating just knowing that you dominated a team,” nose tackle Phil Taylor said. “They literally couldn’t (pee) a drop and you still get blown out. But we’ve just got to finish. We made some mistakes and it came back and hurt us. It just (stinks) to lose like that.”
The Browns (4-6) led 13-0 with 2:19 left in the first quarter and looked more than ready for their return to meaningful November games after a drought of nearly six years. A win would’ve cut Cincinnati’s division lead to a half-game and sent Cleveland’s confidence through the roof.
Then the monsoon struck — before a drop of rain ever hit the turf.
The Bengals (7-4) scored four touchdowns in 12:07, then tacked on a field goal with a second left in the half. The longest drive was five plays, 38 yards and 1:34. The Bengals, who lead the division by 2½ games, had three first downs and 78 yards in the quarter that changed the season.
“It was just plays, and plays that were a disaster,” coach Rob Chudzinski said.
The deluge started with 56 seconds left in the first quarter and the Browns beginning a drive at their 20-yard line. Jason Campbell (27-for-56 for 248 yards, TD, 3 INTs, 44.3 rating) had a short pass tipped at the line and intercepted by linebacker James Harrison, setting up an Andy Dalton 25-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jermaine Gresham.
The Browns went three-and-out and Shawn Williams partially blocked Spencer Lanning’s punt after Christian Yount’s snap made Lanning shift to his right. The kick went 9 yards, and the Bengals cashed in five plays later on a 6-yard pass from Dalton to receiver Mohamed Sanu, who three plays earlier caught a lateral and threw a 25-yard strike to running back Giovani Bernard.
“We’ve just got to figure out a way when stuff starts going downhill, stop the bleeding, score, create a turnover, do something just to stop the pressure,” said cornerback Joe Haden, who had two first-quarter interceptions.
The teams exchanged punts before Lanning had one blocked — and there was nothing partial about it. Jayson DiManche ran past rookie linebacker Barkevious Mingo and fullback Chris Ogbonnaya and knocked the ball sideways. Tony Dye, playing his first NFL game, corralled the ball in a pile, jumped up and ran 24 yards for a touchdown.
“That’s my responsibility. I didn’t do my job,” Mingo said.
The avalanche was still gaining steam. Cleveland’s next drive ended when linebacker Vontaze Burfict drilled Ogbonnay to jar the ball loose. Burfict picked it up and ran 13 yards for a touchdown.
“It’s really disappointing,” said receiver Josh Gordon, who had five catches for 125 yards, including a 74-yard touchdown that cut the deficit to 31-20 in the third quarter. “In the first half you spot a team 21 points basically, like for doing nothing. It’s kind of hard to fight back from that. We gave them the lead within a matter of minutes.
“One thing went wrong, then another thing went wrong, special teams errors and then before you know it it was an upside-down game for us. We know we can beat this team. We just literally gave them the game.”
The numbers support his case.
Dalton was 13-for-27 for 93 yards, and his second interception to Haden was returned 29 yards for a touchdown. He rebounded to throw three touchdowns, including a pair of perfect passes on corner routes in the 31-point onslaught.
Receiver A.J. Green, the target on both interceptions, was held to two catches for 7 yards by Haden. The Bengals were 1-for-14 on third down and gained only 224 yards.
None of it mattered. The Bengals headed toward their bye with coach Marvin Lewis talking about the Super Bowl.
The Browns hustled out of the locker room to get on a flight to beat the terrible weather to Berea. They’re tied with Baltimore and Pittsburgh at 4-6 and host the Steelers on Sunday in a matchup to avoid the North cellar.
“This was one game,” Chudzinski said. “We still have a lot left to play in this season and we’re going to play hard the rest of the way out. I challenged our guys to dig deep. It’s Steelers Week and we will be ready to play.”
The Browns, coming off their bye, spent two weeks anticipating the franchise’s most important game since 2007. They believed their chance had arrived to make a statement and prove they belong in the playoff picture.
Following the head-shaker of a loss, they need to beat Pittsburgh and Jacksonville just to get back in the discussion.
“We’ve just got to keep fighting, but it just (stinks) because we just felt like this is our time to make something happen, this is our time to really show what we could do, but it is what it is,” Haden said. “We’ve got to come in next week to Pittsburgh and get another division game.”
The Browns failed to win three straight in the division for the first time and sweep the Battle of Ohio. They also remained dreadful on the road — 1-4 on the year with only two wins in their last 20 tries.
The best chance to change all of the above came in the first 13 minutes. They settled for 20- and 28-yard Billy Cundiff field goals after reaching the 1- and 6-yard lines. After Haden’s first career pick-six, they led 13-0 rather than 21-0.
“I put the onus on my shoulders,” Campbell said. “You’re in a hostile environment like this, you gotta weather the storm early and I thought if we could’ve punched those in and got touchdowns it could’ve been a different outcome.”
The easiest missed opportunity came when receiver Greg Little crossed wide open along the goal line, but Michael Johnson tipped the ball at the line for an incompletion.
“Maybe I should throw it a little higher,” Campbell said. “Those type of opportunities, we can’t let them slip through our hands, especially on the road against a good defense like this.”
Campbell had easily the worst game of his three starts. After two straight 100-plus ratings, he dipped to 44.3 He was off-target early, settled for a ton of checkdowns and was intercepted three times, though they all were deflected. The 56 attempts were a career high and third-most in team history.
Gordon said Campbell didn’t deserve the blame and felt confident the team will be able to rebound.
“Yeah, because we know we’re better than that,” he said. “It’s just some lazy stuff. I’m not trying to point blame at anybody, but guys know we got to step it up in all areas.”
Contact Scott Petrak at (440) 329-7253 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @scottpetrak.