What a difference a near-year makes.
On Nov. 6, 2014, the visiting Browns embarrassed the Bengals 24-3 in the Thursday Night Massacre. The soul-crushing defeat was quite possibly the regular-season nadir of the Marvin Lewis-Andy Dalton partnership.
On Nov. 5, 2015, the Bengals toyed with the Browns for a half before taking Cleveland to the cleaners in the third and fourth quarter, prevailing 31-10 to move to 8-0 only four days after achieving the franchise’s first-ever 7-0 start with a victorious rock fight in Pittsburgh.
Thursday, a surprisingly game Browns team led by a surprisingly game Johnny Manziel held their own…for a half. Through two quarters, the Browns logged 11 first downs, converted 4-of-7 third downs and outgained the Bengals 181-124. Johnny Football was doing Johnny Football stuff. But, in the second half, the Browns netted just two first downs, went 0-for-6 on third downs, and were outgained by the Bengals 247-32.
All the Bengals needed was for the Browns to show their hand before making the necessary halftime modifications.
“Going in we didn’t have a full understanding of what they were going to do with Johnny,” Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. “We didn’t know if they were going to make him a college quarterback with the option stuff or if they were going to let him be a pro quarterback. So, they got us on a couple of plays.
“We came in (at halftime), made our adjustments, and we got back to doing what we do best.”
Offensively for the Bengals, Dalton entered Thursday night as a bonafide MVP candidate, ranking near the top of the league leaderboard in yards per attempt, quarterback rating, completion percentage, and QBR (ESPN’s quarterbacking metric). Dalton’s near-flawless play is also the central reason the Bengals are second in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA rankings.
Dalton submitted another superb performance Thursday, finishing 21-of-27 for 234 yards, three touchdowns, zero turnovers, and a passer rating of 139.8. (That’s good.) Those numbers are a far cry from Dalton’s nightmare a near-year ago, when he connected on only 10 of his 33 pass attempts, and his interception total (three) outpaced his passer rating (2.0). That clunker marked just the fifth time since 1960 a quarterback notched a passer rating of 2.0 or less with at least 30 pass attempts.
Dalton’s come so far in the past 364 days that as the Bengals’ offense seemingly veered into the realm of predictability in the second half, the press box grumbled for offensive coordinator Hue Jackson to open up the playbook. Shortly thereafter, Jackson dialed up a reverse to Mohamed Sanu—a call straight out of the Remember the Titans playbook—who went sprinting untouched into the endzone to cap a 91-yard march and push Cincinnati’s advantage to 24-10 early in the fourth quarter. (Seriously, it’s not possible to get more open on a reverse. Dalton and Sanu could’ve played leapfrog into the endzone.)
So for the eighth straight game, there were plenty of smiling faces walking around in the Bengals locker room. The team resoundly answered a Primetime Question, and will have a chance to terminate that line of questioning entirely in their next two games, a home Monday Night Football tilt opposite the 3-5 Texans and a road Sunday Night Football foray against Carson Palmer and the 6-2 Cardinals.
What a difference a near-year makes. Instead of answering legitimate questions about the future of the franchise, 26-year-old Dunlap postulated about the possibility of sharing some post-game bubbly with Bengals owner Mike Brown, Dunlap’s famously conservative octogenarian boss.
“I know Mr. Brown is up there excited and probably popping a couple of bottles of champagne,” Dunlap said. “Hopefully he saves one for me.”