The Browns have felt something like the forgotten men of the AFC North in recent years. Even for the inconsistent Bengals, in a division where the Ravens and Steelers were feared and hated, the Browns seemed more of a mild annoyance. Like when you go to shut the door of a car, but you don’t do it hard enough so you have to re-open it and shut it again, and it’s mildly emasculating if anyone sees. This year though, everything was topsy-turvy; not a single pundit had the Browns losing on opening day, and many picked them to make a run at the division.
From the Bengals’ point of view, the absence of their five most recognisable players (by releasing three players with television shows we surely set some sort of record?) meant that this season was less a question of “Whodey!” and more a question of… ”No…seriously…who are they?” The answers, to begin with, were promising. Robert Geathers, of all people, started things off by pass-tipping (which, to the uninitiated, is not a new Kanye song), Jonathon Fanene’s extra weight from training camp helped him send Madden cover boy Peyton Hillis reeling, and smart play-calling from Jay Gruden helped Andy Dalton find Jermaine Gresham for the QB’s first NFL touchdown. The Browns learned that penalties can kill you quicker than adding Seth Meyer’s brother to the cast of your TV show, most amusingly when their coach “unsportingly” knocked a referee to the ground, WWE style, and the Bengals marched into a 13-0 lead.
Of course, this being the Bengals, these best of times were inevitably followed by the worst. Benson got the ball rolling after inexplicably yelling in Dalton’s face (which the commentator helpfully qualified with “Cedric Benson—he just got out of jail”), the defense suddenly began blowing coverage, we threw in a few fumbles to really get the juices flowing, and then allowed our rookie quarterback to suffer a game-ending wrist injury. The Browns took a 17-13 lead.
So, there we were, with a backup quarterback running a stagnant offense, a defense being penalized for the unsettlingly ambiguous “illegal use of hands” (I’m not even going to speculate) and losing yards for that classic Bengals trick of not counting properly…when something amazing happened. Bruce Gradkowski, whose tan had thus far been more impressive than his throwing, treated a third and long like a pick-up game and a lanced a 41-yard bomb while, let’s be honest, the Browns defense was still in the huddle discussing where to go for their celebratory dinner. A.J. Green screamed through for his first NFL touchdown, and the Bengals did what they simply never could in 2010 – they turned a fourth quarter deficit into a lead. The defense, led by hard-hitting Crocker, talismanic Maualuga, and a fast, smart secondary held firm.
As we tried to run down the clock, with memories of last year’s Tampa Bay game more than fresh, with nerves a-tingling and time a-creeping, Cedric Benson spectacularly made me forget his earlier transgressions by tearing through a big Brown hole and racing for the endzone. When Michael Johnson finally forced a “fumber-ception” for the game’s first turnover, it was officially game over.
How deliriously joyful to win against the odds rather than being the slain Goliath. How fun to watch a team rather than a bunch of stars. How fantastic to be (for now!) above the Steelers in the standings. Final score: Bengals 27, Browns 17.