CINCINNATI — More than halfway through the season, the AFC North's standings start with Cleveland.
Yes, the Browns. The team that's been the division's doormat for years. The one that changes coaches and quarterbacks and can't seem to get anywhere.
With a dominating performance, Cleveland suggested that might be changing. The Browns moved into a first-place tie with Pittsburgh by beating the Cincinnati Bengals 24-3 on Thursday night, extending their best start in 20 years.
Maybe these aren't the Browns (6-3) that everyone has come to expect.
"We're not the old Cleveland Browns," safety Donte Whitner said. "We understand everybody wants to put that label on us, but we work too hard and have too much character and talent on this football team to believe what outside people think of us.
"Right now, we're No. 1 in our division."
And the Bengals (5-3-1) are a prime-time mess. Again. They lost a Sunday night game in New England 43-17 earlier this season. They were primed to prove themselves to a national audience. All they did was show they can't handle the attention.
"This one has me speechless," receiver A.J. Green said.
While the Bengals try to find the words to describe yet another meltdown, the Browns came away in the unaccustomed role of having to avoid getting giddy over being in first place.
"It doesn't matter," quarterback Brian Hoyer said. "There's seven more games to go. I know speaking for myself, the meaningful games come at the end of November and in December. That's something this organization hasn't had in a long time."
Things learned from a most lopsided matchup of Ohio's teams:
ONE FOR THE AGES: There's no understating what this one meant to Cleveland. The Browns had dropped their last 17 road games against AFC North teams. Their last such win came on Sept. 28, 2008, a 20-12 victory in Cincinnati. This one was Cleveland's most lopsided victory in Cincinnati since a 34-0 win in 1987 with strike replacement players.
"A huge boost for our guys," coach Mike Pettine said. "Just look at the streaks we ended. Not many people gave us a chance."
ON THE RUN: The Browns pulled it off by getting their running game together. They'd run for a total of only 158 yards in the last three games combined, averaging 1.9 yards per carry. Against Cincinnati's struggling defense, they piled up 170 yards, with Terrance West picking up 94 yards on 26 carries to lead the way.
HADEN VS GREEN IS NO CONTEST: Cornerback Joe Haden got the better of Green again, holding him to three harmless catches for 23 yards. His longest reception went for only 11 yards. While much of it was the result of Andy Dalton being off-target all night, Haden never let the Bengals' top receiver get open. In their last three games, Green has been held to a total of 12 catches for 81 yards.
DALTON 2.0: Yes, that was Dalton's passer rating for Thursday night — 2.0. He completed 10 of 33 for 86 yards with three interceptions and two sacks. He was off-target all night, his throws sailing on a cold, breezy night. Asked who should get the blame for another horrid offensive showing, Dalton answered immediately.
"I should," he said. "And I deserve it. It all starts with me. It all goes through the quarterback."
PRIME-TIME BUSTS: The Bengals have a history of falling apart on the big stage and in the postseason. They haven't won a playoff game since the 1990 season, tied for the sixth-longest streak of futility in NFL history. They've reached the playoffs each of the last three seasons and lost in the first round. They're also horrid in prime time, going 18-41 in those big-stage games, including that drubbing in New England earlier this season. Until they show up when it matters, they're not going to be taken seriously as a championship contender.
"It does confound me," coach Marvin Lewis said. "For whatever reason, the two times (in prime time) this year we didn't play well. Because we were at home, there was an energy and excitement instead of being steely-eyed and focusing on what we have to do."
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