If there was any doubt about the credentials of Brian Hoyer or the Cleveland Browns as being ‘for real’ or actual playoff contenders, they were all erased after a dominant performance against the Cincinnati Bengals in which they crushed Andy Dalton en route to a 24-3 win.
The Browns, one of the marquee laughing stocks in the NFL for years are now 6-3 in a tough division, tied for the lead with the Pittsburgh Steelers and owning a 2-2 record in the division. For the first time in years, there’s no discussion about a different quarterback other than the one they have playing for them. Johnny Manziel is just someone on the bench. Hoyer is without a doubt their quarterback for the present and future, without anything coming from a haunted past to disturb him and them.
The Browns pounced on the Bengals right from the start, never leaving them any room to breath. The ground attack kept on pushing with 170 yards, as the Browns ignored the low efficiency of those runs (only 3.3 yards per carry). Hoyer didn’t do anything too risky, finishing with 15-of-23 for 198 yards and no touchdowns. Most importantly were their three interceptions and countless times of getting to Andy Dalton, held to completing just 10-of-33 passes for 86 yards, finishing with a passer rating of 2.0 and a QBR according to ESPN of 4.3.
Finishing with just 165 yards of offense, two of the bottom five offensive performances this season belong to the Bengals, including a league-worst 135 yards against the Colts. There’s a common thread to their three losses this season, being outscored by almost 26 points per game and being outgained by 253 yards. Most pressing is their inability to convert on third down in those losses: Just 4-of-37, compared to more than 46% of them in their wins.
Dalton had himself a stinker of epic proportions. All of his interceptions came against a standard pass rush, as his 30% completion percentage was a career low. He overthrew the ball 11 times, tying a career high. He was 0-for-8 when attempting deep passes (15 yards or more downfield), and became only the fourth quarterback to amass 86 yards or less on 33 throws since the NFL-AFL merger, joining Chris Weinke (2001), Kordell Stewart (1998) and Vince Ferragamo.
As for the Browns? They scored all their touchdowns on short yardage runs – once for Ben Tate, once for Isaiah Crowell and once for Terrance West. The Browns gained 75 rushing yards after contact in a very dominant trenches performance, its most such rushing yards since a 2011 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. They ran for 132 yards between the tackles including all three touchdowns, their most such yards since a 2011 game and their most touchdowns through the middle since a 2007 game.
And as for Hoyer, he keeps things simple and doesn’t make mistakes. He completed 10-of-13 passes for 104 yards on throws for under 14 yards downfield. He was ranked dead last in the NFL on such throws heading into the game, completing 58.5% of them. No one is trying to be flashy or too clever on this team. Just keeping things simple, and winning the “old-fashioned” way – by working in a system that avoids mistakes, and keeps pushing the ball forward while winning the battles in the trenches.
There’s still almost half a season to go and things might be changing in this division and the in the NFL by the time we reach December and beyond. But the Browns are doing better than anyone expected and don’t seem to be getting carried away with what’s happening. Maybe that’s due to knowing it usually ends badly for them. This season wasn’t supposed to be any different – just another rebuilding attempt. It’s turning out to be so much more.