The Cincinnati Bengals came into today knowing this was their 2023 finale. They still came to play as if they had something to play for.
The Cleveland Browns, on the opposite spectrum, knew they were locked into the No. 5 spot of the AFC, so they decided to rest plenty of starters.
That meant this game ended up being Jake Browning facing off against former-Bengals’ quarterback Jeff Driskel. The Bengals at least wanted to go out with a bang and finish off the season with a winning record.
The Browns started the game with the ball on offense. The Bengals defense didn’t take long to make their presence known. Rookie safety Jordan Battle was able to run down an overthrown deep ball along the sideline. It was the rookie’s first interception of his young career.
Cincinnati had a little bit of a pop off a Joe Mixon run for a first down to start the series, but Jake Browning had a pass sail on him over the middle to Tyler Boyd. Cleveland safety David Bell was able to tip it up to himself to prevent the Bengals from getting any points.
The defense stepped up again ending with a BJ Hill sack on third down. Trey Hendrickson was given half a sack after making the initial contact. He was just 1.5 sacks behind Steeler pass rusher T.J. Watt for the most sacks on the season after that.
Browning came out more on point as he hit Charlie Jones for a 35-yard pass down the middle. Mixon ultimately ended the drive with three straight runs from the 23-yard line after getting pushed back from a holding call. His ninth rushing touchdown of the season. Cincinnati took a 7-0 lead with six minutes left in the first quarter.
Another quick three-and-out put the Cincinnati offense back out there. Just as quickly, Mixon hit a 44-yard run that put him over 1,000 rushing yards on the season. Rookie wide receiver Andrei Iosivas had two catches on the drive for a total of 20 yards to set up a receiving touchdown for Mixon from six yards out after slipping a linebacker. It was a 14-0 lead with under a minute left in the first quarter.
The defense made quick work of Cleveland’s offense again. The Browns were sitting at five total yards with -11 passing yards via sacks.
Browning executed another incredible drive. It took eight plays to go 75 yards where he took what the defense gave him. He ran for a couple of first downs while hitting guys like Jones and Drew Sample for first downs. Iosivas ended the drive with a touchdown wide-open in the middle of the end zone from three yards out. It was the rookies' third touchdown on the season.
Midway through the second quarter, Cleveland was finally able to get their first first down of the day after Driskel was able to complete a back shoulder pass down the sideline. The Bengals shut down the drive from there.
The Bengals offense stopped rolling for a minute as the Browns finally got a stop. It didn’t take long for the defense to get the ball back as Joseph Ossai was able to hit Driskel’s arm as he was throwing. It popped up the pass that turned more into a punt for linebacker Logan Wilson to get the interception and set the offense up at Cleveland’s 34-yard line after a return.
It set up a field goal for Evan McPherson to extend the lead to 24-0, which they would hold going into halftime.
The second half started with both teams trading punts. The Cleveland defense came out with a little more energy. The Browns were eventually able to pin the Bengals at their own one-yard line. That didn’t hold back the offense.
The drive was kickstarted with a neutral zone penalty to give the offense some breathing room. Then Mixon and Chase Brown broke off 42 yards in back-to-back plays. The offense did get stalled on a 4th-and-4, but Browning was able to draw the defense offside to extend the drive. He was then eventually able to convert a 3rd-and-18 with a 25-yard pass to Trenton Irwin to set up Iosivas’ second touchdown catch of the day to extend their lead to 31-0.
By the fourth quarter, the Bengals had replaced many of their starters with backups like AJ McCarron coming in for Jake Browning, as well as players like Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard getting rest with the big lead.
The Browns were finally able to get on the board. They struck from 31 yards out on a 4th-and-4 play where Driskel was able to get the ball over Dax Hill and DJ Turner to David Bell.
That wasn’t it for Driskel and Brown. On the next drive, they connected for a 24-yard touchdown after he was able to get behind Sydney Jones. The safety was also late rotating over in the coverage. That made it a 31-14 game with just over two minutes left.
The result of this game may not mean much on paper. If anything it starts the clock on a very important offseason for Cincinnati. How many of these players have we seen for the last time in a Cincinnati uniform? How different will this roster look come 2024.
You never want to see a team with a franchise quarterback waste a season by missing the NFL Playoffs, but these Bengals showed some fight down the stretch when no one would have blamed them for falling out.