CINCINNATI - The Cincinnati Bengals found themselves in a double-digit deficit for the third straight game late in the first quarter Sunday against the Cleveland Browns. Nearly everything that could have gone wrong for the Bengals in the first 14 minutes of the game did go wrong.
Linebacker James Harrison and the Cincinnati defense changed the momentum of the game and the AFC North division race with one play and the most dominating quarter of football in franchise history.
The Bengals scored a franchise-record 31 points in the second quarter and snapped a two-game losing streak with a 41-20 win against the Browns on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
The Bengals (7-4) returned a fumble and a blocked punt for touchdowns as they rallied from a 13-0 deficit against the Browns (4-6) and maintained control of the AFC North division lead. Cincinnati managed just 108 yards offense and three first downs in the first half but broke the franchise record for most points scored in any quarter on the strength of its defense and special teams.
The Bengals ended the game with 224 yards, while Cleveland managed 330 yards but turned the ball over four times.
"I guess we will continue to major in thrilling at this point," said Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis. "We showed great resilience, perseverance and the ability to come back today. I thought the defense did a great job of getting some turnovers and getting us jump-started on offense."
Harrison started Cincinnati's rally with an interception of quarterback Jason Campbell off a tipped pass in the final minute of the first quarter. Harrison returned the interception 21 yards, bulling his way into the end zone for an apparent touchdown but the score was negated by a penalty. Quarterback Andy Dalton threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jermaine Gresham on the first play of the second quarter.
"As soon as I got the ball in my hand all I was thinking of was 'We've got to score.' Our offense was a little sluggish at the time and we felt like we needed something to get us turned around," said Harrison. "We had that opportunity. I felt like I wasn't going to be stopped. I was stopped but the offense came out and did their job."
Cincinnati rookie safety Shawn Williams deflected a punt by Spencer Lanning on the Browns' next possession, giving the Bengals a first down at Cleveland's 38. Dalton got his second touchdown pass of the game on a 6-yard throw to Mohamed Sanu with 11:49 left in the half. The Bengals upped the lead to 21-13 when Tony Dye returned a blocked punt by rookie Jayson DiManche 24 yards for his first career touchdown. Dye was signed off of the practice squad on Saturday and was playing in his first NFL game.
"It was a clean operation," said Lanning. "My head is down as soon as I catch the ball. I'm not sure what happens up front. I believe in our guys. It just wasn't good enough today."
Linebacker Vontaze Burfict stripped the ball from Browns' running back Chris Ogbonnaya on a swing pass, picked up the loose ball and returned it 13 yards for his first career score, giving the Bengals a 28-13 lead with 2:45 left in the half.
Mike Nugent's 41-yard field goal with one second left in the half gave the Bengals their franchise record.
Billy Cundiff made field goals of 20 and 28 yards in the first quarter to give Cleveland a 6-0 lead but the Browns missed out on touchdown opportunities on both drives. They had a first-and-goal at the 2 before having to settle for Cundiff's 20-yard field goal. Cornerback Joe Haden intercepted a Dalton pass and returned it 15 yards to the Cincinnati 14 but the Bengals again forced a field goal attempt.
"I felt good about how we came out and played the first quarter, although I wish we could have put the ball in the end zone the two time we were down there," Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said. "I give Cincinnati credit because they stayed with it and continued to play."
Haden took care of business himself on Cincinnati's next possession, returning a Dalton pass 29 yards for a touchdown to give the Browns a 13-0 lead.
It was the first touchdown scored by an opponent against the Bengals at home since Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw a touchdown pass to James Jones in the third quarter in Week 3, a span of nine quarters.
Dalton finished the game 13-of-27 for 93 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. It is the first time in Dalton's career he has played an entire game and not thrown for 100 yards or more. Campbell ended the game 27-of-56 for 248 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. The Bengals sacked him four times.
NOTES: The 41 points scored by Cincinnati are the most this season allowed by Cleveland. Detroit and Green Bay previously scored 31 points. ... Cleveland Browns QB Jason Campbell hadn't thrown an interception in 98 pass attempts before LB James Harrison's interception in the first quarter. ... The Bengals last scored as many as 28 points in a quarter on Nov. 19, 1989, against Detroit. ... The Bengals have blocked three kicks this season, the most for them since 1991. ... LB Craig Robertson (knee) and DL Armonty Bryant (ankle) did not return after suffering injuries for Cleveland. ... The last time the Bengals and Browns played a game this late in a season as the top two teams in a division was Oct. 29, 1995. Both teams were 3-4 and in a three-way tie with Pittsburgh for first place in the AFC Central. ... Cincinnati has its bye next week. Its next game is at San Diego on Dec. 1. Cleveland hosts Pittsburgh next Sunday.