Apparently not every 0-3 team is created equal.
In a game that featured a number of firsts for both teams, the winless Cleveland Browns got the most important first, a win, in a harder than it had to be 20-12 victory over the equally winless Cincinnati Bengals. The victory avoided putting the Browns into the bye week under a worst case scenario and facing a groundswell of fan dissatisfaction directed, in no particular order, toward general manager Phil Savage, head coach Romeo Crennel and quarterback Derek Anderson. As it is, that dissatisfaction will simply have to simmer for another few weeks.
Despite having the same records going in, the game seemed to set up far better for the Browns than the Bengals. But until Anderson, probably on his absolute last lifeline, put together a key third quarter drive capped off by a 4-yard touchdown pass to Braylon Edwards, the outcome was seriously in doubt. It was Edwards' first touchdown of the season. A quick turnover by Bengals' running back Chris Perry gave the ball right back to the Browns, allowing Jamal Lewis to get a first of his own, a 4-yard touchdown run that helped give the Browns a 17-6 lead and effectively put the game out of reach. On that drive Anderson hit tight end Kellen Winslow on a 20-yard pass that helped put the Browns within Lewis' ramming range.
Though the game was mostly over by that point, that doesn't mean it was easy jog in. Bengals' quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, subbing for the injured Carson Palmer, struggled all day but still managed to move the Bengals to within five points with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Chad Johnson with just under 8 minutes left. It was Johnson's first touchdown of the season as well. The Bengals, though, had used all of their time outs early in the second half, giving the Browns the chance to burn plenty of time off the clock, which was a good plan that didn't quite come off.
After making one first down, running back Jerome Harrison was dropped for a 5-yard loss and Anderson was forced to call a time out when the Browns couldn't get the right personnel onto the field, which is the kind of thing that tends to keep a team winless. A Lewis run went nowhere and Anderson tried a squeeze pass to Harrison that came up short, leaving the ball just outside of kicker Phil Dawson's field goal range. The Browns took a delay of game penalty to give punter Dave Zastudil more room, but that didn't work either as he put the ball in the back of the end zone, giving the Bengals the ball at their own 20-yard line with three minutes remaining and some hope.
This is where Fitzpatrick demonstrated that he's no Carson Palmer. He scrambled on first down to keep the clock running, passed short on second down to keep the clock running and then fumbled on third down at his own 20-yard line to linebacker Alex Hall with 2:04 remaining. From there, the Browns added another Dawson field goal for the margin of victory.
A win is a win, certainly, and there's no reason to diminish it simply because it came against the Bengals. At this point, the Browns have no cause to be picky. But future wins are going to be few and far between unless they find a way to rid themselves of the usual gremlins that have plagued them this season. The game again featured a full array of dropped passes, lousy blocking and missed assignments, penalties, and an inability to pressure the quarterback. That's why the game was close. But if the degrees of awful are measured on a 100 point scale, the Browns, even with that mess, are still hovering around a 50. The Bengals are well into the 80s.
As proof, consider the following. The Bengals have one of the worst run defenses in the league and were facing one of the worst rushing teams in the league. Somehow, though, the Browns ended up with 134 rushing yards after averaging less than 75 in the three games prior. The Bengals defense, like the Browns, can't get off the field on third down. The Browns have one of the worst third down conversion rates in the league at 35%. On the day, the Browns were 5-13 for 38%. Ok, that isn't much of an improvement, but baby steps, baby steps. The Bengals also like to give opposing defenses a break. Coming into the game their offense was leading the league in three-and-outs. On the day, they went three-and-out twice, which may not sound like much until you also consider that they turned it over three other times within the first three plays of a drive.
In all, and as far as the Browns were concerned, the Bengals offered a near perfect formula for a much needed victory by a team in need of a shot of confidence going into the bye week.
The Browns' first lead, and for a while what looked to be their only lead, came on their first drive. Demonstrating a new-found commitment to the run, the Browns were able to do so more effectively than they have all season. Lewis had 20 of his 79 yards on that drive and Harrison accounted for another 8. But that drive stalled inside the 5-yard line and the Browns had to settle for a Phil Dawson 25-yard field goal.
The Bengals then snatched a little momentum of their own with a 13 play, 68-drive that tied the game thanks to a 42-yard field goal by Shayne Graham. Fitzpatrick helped his own cause in that drive by twice scrambling for first downs against a defense that couldn't pressure him despite a flurry of blitzes.
That shot of adrenalin initially carried over on the defensive side of the ball for the Bengals but soon disappeared when Fitzpatrick threw an ill-advised pass late, deep and into the waiting hands of safety Mike Adams near the Browns' goal line. The Browns, mostly on the strength of Lewis, put together a nice drive of their own that dissolved under the weight of Crennel's decision to eschew field position in favor of something far more positive. It would have worked, too, except that after a nifty fake by Anderson to Lewis, Anderson then threw poorly and at the feet of tight end Steve Heiden. It was the kind of pass that he's thrown way too often this season.
That only served to set up perhaps the sequence that best illustrated the combined incompetence of the two teams. On 3rd and 5 from his own 45-yard line, Fitzpatrick threw his second interception of the day, this time on a nice play by cornerback Eric Wright. With plenty of running room, Wright crossed back over midfield but forgot to secure the ball. The Bengals' Perry hit him, the ball went flying backward (or forward, depending on your perspective) and into the hands of Bengals' receiver, Chad Johnson, the first time Johnson's name had been called all game. The play didn't net the Bengals much in the way of yardage but gave them an important first down with two minutes left in the half. In a nearly sublime ending to the sequence, however, the Bengals mostly squandered the field position and ended up having to settle for a 45-yard field goal by Graham that just crept inside the uprights. Still, it gave them the lead in a game that didn't feature much offense to that point but still managed to be offensive.
The reason a Bengals' lead, or a Browns deficit, again depending on perspective, was important at that point was mostly for those fans of trends. The Browns hadn't scored a second half touchdown all season nor had they scored a first quarter touchdown all season, which they kept in tact. Coupled with the fact that the Browns also hadn't scored a touchdown in the second quarter Sunday, the rest of the game seemed to hold little hope. And it mostly went that way until Anderson's big third quarter drive.
That isn't to say that the game lacked interest, or at least some intrigue. On a drive that started at the Browns' 2-yard line less than five minutes into the third quarter, Edwards committed his fourth penalty of the season, a personal foul on a late hit, after Lewis had seemingly gotten the first down. Punter Dave Zastudil relieved some of the pressure with a 58-yard punt, but over on the sideline Edwards and Anderson were in a heated exchange and had to separated by Lewis.
Any team other than, perhaps, Cincinnati could have easily exploited a team clearly on the brink at that point. The Bengals instead were forced to punt setting up the mini-resurrection that led to the Browns' victory.
On the day, Anderson was hardly brilliant but almost certainly did enough to save his job for now and maybe that of his head coach. He was only 15-24 for 138 yards, one touchdown and one interception, but that was enough to raise his quarterback rating to almost 50 on the season. That still keeps him near the bottom of the league, but again, baby steps, baby steps. Edwards, despite his first touchdown, caught only two other passes for 22 yards total and still has a long way to go to be considered merely out of sync. Winslow was once again Anderson's favorite target, grabbing five passes for 54 yards.
Now the Browns and their fans get a welcome respite from a season that once looked promising and was on the verge of looking completely lost. This win isn't going to go too far in solving all the problems that this team still faces, but if all it does is give them a little hop in their step for a few weeks, then that's at least more than they had when this day started. And if that isn't the most satisfying of circumstances remember, baby steps, baby steps.