Five things we learned from Browns-Bengals Sunday...
1. The Browns defense is for real. The defensive front, specifically, is playing a relentless, suffocating brand of football and a young and thin secondary is doing the job. No one back there -- and maybe no cornerback anywhere -- is doing a better job than Joe Haden, who in his fourth year has been as advertised as a more mature, more polished player and is locking down opposing receivers. The Browns defense is setting the tone early in games and in Haden and Barkevious Mingo, it has at least a couple rising stars to go with a bunch of guys who are doing their jobs and doing them well.
2. That Browns defense played a role in this on Sunday, but the Bengals are going nowhere unless Andy Dalton starts playing much better. He really couldn't have played much worse on Sunday; his official quarterback rating of 58.2 seems kind of high. The Bengals never found a flow, Dalton never looked comfortable in the pocket and he both forced some throws and missed some others that could have been big plays. A couple drops at the end didn't help his numbers (23-of-42, 206 yards, one interception) but the game was long decided. Here's how the Bengals final eight series ended: Turnover on downs, punt, fumble, punt, field goal, punt, interception, downs.
3. Brian Hoyer is smart. He's undefeated as a starter with the Browns, too, but that's not because of his arm strength or some other standout talent. He's getting the ball out of his hand, getting the offense lined up and finding Jordan Cameron -- who's becoming a star, by the way. While Dalton stood in the pocket most of the day and watched it collapse or made a late decision to get the ball out of his hand, the ball came out of Hoyer's hand quickly and even on throws he missed, he usually put them where the Bengals couldn't get them. The Browns didn't turn the ball over; lo and behold, they won the game. Hoyer's 103.9 quarterback rating Sunday is the kind of number that many Browns quarterbacks haven't been able to post adding two weeks together. Until someone forces Hoyer into a bunch of deep throws and/or sacks, the Browns have their quarterback of the near future, and that alone puts them miles ahead of where they were even a few weeks ago.
4. Finding Cameron (repeatedly), not getting A.J. Green free (or Mohamed Sanu going), running right into the teeth of that Browns defense on a questionable first-half fourth and one call...the Bengals just did not play a very good football game. They missed Leon Hall and Reggie Nelson, certainly, but the defense was left on the field too long by an offense that converted 4-of-14 third downs, had 17 second-half rushing yards and missed opportunities in each half. The Bengals came in on a two-game win streak and off a wild rally for what could have been a breakthrough win last week against Green Bay, but they went flat on Sunday in Cleveland and never really woke up.
5. The AFC North is a mediocre mess. The Browns have to love that, right? The Bengals blew a golden opportunity Sunday, the Ravens went to Buffalo and lost after Joe Flacco threw five interceptions, the Steelers went across the pond, lost again and limp into a bye week at 0-4...and the Browns now have a short week home game with a chance to grab first place. Yes, the Ravens, Bengals and Browns are all 2-2 after the season's first month. The division is a combined 6-10, nobody is running the ball and nobody is getting great quarterback play, but the Browns defense is playing like it wants to lead the push out of the perennial basement. Nothing's going to come easy, and there's a ton of season left, but ugly appears to be en vogue and the Browns are built to win ugly. Confidence can be both dangerous and contagious, and if it's matched with solid defense and a positive turnover margin, we can't say right now with any certainty what might happen. The Bengals have the Patriots next, followed by two road games. They'd better find some confidence quickly.