CINCINNATI — Brandon Weeden’s passer rating was 109.8 points higher than a week ago.
Trent Richardson gave linebacker Rey Maualuga and the rest of the Bengals something spectacular to remember for the rematch in a month.
The offense scored three touchdowns, something it managed only once last year.
The Browns still lost 34-27 Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
As has been the case since the Browns returned in 1999, too many of the good moments come in losses. That’s what happens when the wins cycle through as often as a blue moon.
“Yeah, we had growth, but we’d much rather have the win more than anything,” receiver Greg Little said. “We couldn’t care less about growth. We know how good we are, we just have to come out on top at the end of the game.”
The bounce-back performances of rookie first-round draft choices Weeden and Richardson kept the Browns in the game and gave soon-to-be owner Jimmy Haslam, the front office, coaches, players and fans reason to feel optimistic about the future.
Richardson rushed 19 times for 109 yards, a 5.7 average and a 32-yard touchdown. He added four catches for 36 yards, including a sensational 23-yarder in which he made four Bengals miss with shiftiness, strength and a spin into the end zone. The breakout came four days after Maualuga said Richardson was “nothing spectacular.”
Weeden, who had a 5.1 rating and four interceptions in the opener, looked like a new man. He completed 26-of-37 passes (70 percent) for 322 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, no fumbles and a 114.9 rating. The touchdowns were his first in the NFL.
The defense and special teams wasted the efforts, sent Cleveland to 0-2 and extended its losing streak in the AFC North to 11 games.
“I’m proud of my guys. I thought they did a helluva job of playing hard,” said coach Pat Shurmur, who dropped to 0-7 in the division. “Now, they gave up some big plays and in the end that was the difference.
“There were some things that were good, but again I think you have to temper your comments on what’s good when you lose the game, especially a hard-fought division game on the road.”
A breakdown on special teams opened the day on a disastrous note and the Browns spent the rest of the afternoon trying to atone. Adam Jones returned a punt 81 yards for a touchdown 107 seconds in.
Rookie Johnson Bademosi was the first to miss a tackle at about the 20-yard line, and five of his teammates followed suit — Kaluka Maiava, Alex Smith, Christian Yount, Eric Hagg and Craig Robertson.
“Nothing wrong with the scheme, nothing wrong with the punt, just gotta get the guy on the ground,” Shurmur said.
The offense chipped away the rest of the game, but the defense never got enough stops for the Browns to catch up. After forcing five turnovers and allowing only 17 points to the high-powered Eagles, the defense allowed 27 points and 375 yards and got a lone interception by middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson.
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton picked on an undermanned secondary for 318 yards, three touchdowns and a 128.2 rating. He completed seven to No. 1 wideout A.J. Green, including a touchdown, but they went for only 58 yards (8.3) with a long of 12. Dalton went elsewhere for the big plays that changed the game – a 44-yard touchdown to Brandon Tate against safety Eric Hagg and a 50-yard catch-and-run-and-run-and-run to undersized speedster Andrew Hawkins, who got away from rookie nickelback Trevin Wade, then eluded Hagg and strong safety T.J. Ward.
The Browns were without starting cornerbacks Joe Haden, who missed the first of a four-game suspension, and Sheldon Brown, who was active but is still suffering from a neck injury suffered in the opener. Not only are they the team’s best cover guys, they are also strong tacklers.
“If you ask any team in the NFL if they go into a game without their two starting cornerbacks, it’s gonna be pretty difficult,” Ward said. “They start for a reason. It’s because they’re the best cornerbacks on the team.”
Dimitri Patterson was solid in place of Haden, but missed a tackle on Green’s touchdown. Buster Skrine, making his first start in his second year, missed several tackles, gave up completions and was penalized 31 yards for pass interference.
“It’s not easy,” Patterson said. “Listen, man, this is a tough, tough business, it’s a tough game. You’ve got these coordinators. They want to see what you’re about.”
The defense’s last chance to make a stand came after the Browns cut the deficit to 31-24 with 7:11 left on a 24-yard strike over the middle from Weeden to Little. He had zero catches and a ball went through his hands for an interception in Week 1, but rallied for five catches, 57 yards and the score.
Cincinnati faced third-and-1 at its 32-yard line, but rookie defensive tackle John Hughes — replacing Billy Winn, who left with a concussion — jumped offside. After another first down and with the Browns using timeouts to stop the clock, the Bengals (1-1) faced third-and-7 from the Cleveland 46-yard line.
Tight end Jermaine Gresham was one-on-one with Ward and Dalton threw for his back shoulder down the left sideline. Ward forced a bobble, but the officials ruled Gresham got both feet inbounds anyway. Ward protested and Shurmur challenged the call, but the replays appeared inconclusive and the catch stood.
“I saw the bobble, pushed him out of bounds and I don’t believe he caught it,” Ward said. “But, hey, I’m not a referee.”
The Bengals milked the clock, settled for a 37-yard Mike Nugent field goal and a 10-point lead and recovered an onside kick with 20 seconds left after Phil Dawson kicked his second field goal.
“Big plays and some dumb plays, dumb penalties,” linebacker Scott Fujita described the defensive effort. “That kind of stuff just kills you. You can’t let that happen.”
The Browns are 0-2 but only a game back of the other three teams in the AFC North. They host Buffalo (1-1) on Sunday before hitting the road for Baltimore and the New York Giants.
“It’s going to get much better. I know it is,” Richardson said. “The way Brandon’s going, the way the offensive line’s going and just the whole offensive staff, we’re going to be a complete team.
“Once we get together and be a unit, we’re going to be going uphill.”
Contact Scott Petrak at (440) 329-7253 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.