Cincinnati (9-8) jumped out to a 24-0 lead in the first half against a Cleveland team resting starters for the playoffs, and the Bengals didn’t give up points until the fourth quarter when their backups were in as well.
Here are five takeaways from the finale:
1. Why it mattered
Browning said “it sucks” to miss out on the playoffs, but pointed out the significance of keeping Zac Taylor’s streak of winning seasons alive, as he has now done it three years in a row.
“There’s all these stats that pop up on TV and one of the cooler ones that I always saw, I mean I hate the Steelers just as much as everybody else, but the fact that Mike Tomlin has had that many winning seasons, hopefully however many years from now, Zac has that same thing,” Browning said. “And there’ll be a little bit of that like, all right, I guess it’s 2024 now, good thing we got that win. And so, the streak’s at three. It’s not even close to Mike Tomlin but still alive.”
The Bengals also avoided going winless in the AFC North, a division that saw all four teams finish above .500 – something that has never been done since teams began playing a standard schedule in 1936 with the same number of games as one another.
Taylor said going 1-5 in the division is not acceptable, but he was proud his team controlled what it could Sunday and got the win. The other three teams in the AFC North all made the postseason.
2. Putting good tape out there
For players like Browning who face an uncertain future as free agents, Sunday was one last chance to put some good tape out there. Browning, who will be a restricted free agent, ends with a 4-3 record in seven starts after replacing injured Joe Burrow, and he said he was able to prove himself a capable starter in the NFL.
Browning completed 75 percent of his passes for 156 yards and three touchdowns with one interception Sunday and finished the season with 1,936 yards and 12 touchdowns with seven interceptions. Tyler Boyd dropped what could have been a 92-yard touchdown, at his own 30-yard line with no one behind him, in the second quarter on a drive that accounted for Cincinnati’s only punt of the first half.
“It’s obviously a weird situation where I feel like, hey, I’m one of the top 32 quarterbacks in the world and I just so happen to be on a roster with a guy that’s proven that he’s a top five quarterback in the world,” Browning said. “And so what that looks like going forward, no idea, nor do I have any control, so I’m not going to think about it a ton, but I think when I go watch all my film to try and figure out what I’m going to work on this offseason, I’ll be proud of what I put on tape.”
Two injured players on expiring deals did not play, with Tee Higgins (hamstring) and Chidobe Awuzie (shoulder/calf) inactive. Everyone else got through the game healthy.
3. Milestone days for Mixon, Chase
Running back Joe Mixon hit a rushing milestone and earned a big bonus with his two touchdowns, and Ja’Marr Chase got the four receptions he needed to reach 100 catches for the first time in his young career. Chase only had four catches for 19 yards but exited as soon as he got his milestone early in the third quarter. Mixon’s success Sunday played a significant role in the win.
Mixon topped 1,000 yards rushing in a season for the fourth time in his career, rushing for 80 yards and a touchdown on six carries in the first quarter, while also adding a touchdown catch. He needed 77 yards Sunday to reach the milestone and got it with a 44-yard run that set up his second touchdown, a 6-yard reception on Jake Browning’s pass that gave Cincinnati a 14-0 lead in the first quarter.
One of the knocks on Mixon has been his lack of explosive runs, but he produced four runs of 12 yards or more, including that 44-yarder.
4. Fitting end for the defense
The Bengals defense shut out the Browns for more than three quarters but allowed two explosive touchdowns in the final nine minutes, as Cleveland avoided the shutout. Although those plays happened with a lot of the backups on defense, it was safety Dax Hill that got beat on both plays.
Backup quarterback Jeff Driskel, the fifth quarterback to start a game for Cleveland this year, threw a pair of long touchdowns passes -- for 31 and 24 yards -- to David Bell. Hill has struggled with missed assignments and communication errors in his first season as a starter, and the explosives were a consistent problem.
A young secondary is already discussing ways to fix that for the 2024 season.
“We’re going to get started instantly,” second-year cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt said. “I know the season is over now, but I’m going to give them some time to rest up a little bit, and then we’re all going to fly somewhere together and we’re going to get started early because there’s no way some of the things that happened this season should have happened, and I believe if we get started earlier and we get on the same page, there’s no stopping us.”
5. Motivation for next year
Players pointed out that if they were playing in a different division, they likely would be in the playoffs, but knowing that this season wasn’t good enough already has them motivated for next year. Beating the Browns backups wasn’t a great gage for what could have been, but Cincinnati going up 31-0 and not giving up any points with the full starters in was at least a positive to build on for 2024.
“The end of the season (is) obviously not what we wanted when we were starting the vision of 2023, but now it’s 2024, and we’ve started with a win,” center Ted Karras said. “It’s very exciting. I’m very proud of all these guys. I think we got out relatively clean (injury wise today) and we’ve got a very big year ahead. Obviously, everyone will take their break and stuff, but we’ve got to come back. Hopefully, this motivates us all to never let this happen again.”