By Andrew Kahn

The Cleveland Browns are tied for first in the AFC North. The perennial doormat of the division dominated its intra-division, intra-state rivalry with the Cincinnati Bengals last night, scoring first and never trailing en route to a 24-3 victory. The Browns are 6-3, tied with Pittsburgh, while the Bengals, at 5-3-1, must hit the road for five of their final seven games.

Believe in Cleveland

This figured to be a measuring stick game for the Browns, which have played perhaps the league’s easiest schedule to date. Cleveland had not won a divisional road game since September 28, 2008—17 straight losses. Shaky performances against the NFL’s worst teams the last few weeks did little to quiet the doubters. Well how about a drubbing of a Bengals team that has gone to the playoffs the last three years? In a weird way, the lopsided score may work against the Browns, as critics will focus on just how bad the Bengals looked. A more competitive game might have earned Cleveland more respect. But make no mistake—Cleveland is a good football team that, at this point, should be expected to make the playoffs.

Dalton self-destructs

Andy Dalton’s first two passes of the game foreshadowed the type of night it was going to be for Cincinnati. His first was an incompletion to A.J. Green, covered by Joe Haden. His second was an interception. Green would finish with just three catches and Dalton threw two more picks. You could make an argument that none of the interceptions were squarely on Dalton. On the first one, it’s impossible to know whether Jermaine Gresham ran an imprecise route or if Dalton misread the situation. The result was a Cleveland linebacker stepping in front of the pass.

In the fourth quarter, with Cincinnati down 24-3, Buster Skrine picked off Dalton twice: first on what appeared to be a botched route by Greg Little and again on a heave down the field that just as easily could have been hauled in by James Wright. Throw in the fact that Dalton was under duress much of the night and it’s easy to see how this loss can’t be entirely pinned on the quarterback. All of that being said, you don’t go 10 for 33 for 86 yards—that’s a passer rating of 2, folks—without missing your share of open receivers. Dalton also made some rookie mistakes as far as getting rid of the football. He was terrible, and Bengals fans are certainly concerned.

Haden’s gonna ‘hade’

Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden might not get the recognition of Richard Sherman or Darrelle Revis, but he’s every bit as good. The No. 7 pick in the 2010 draft out of Florida, Haden has proven to be a shutdown corner for the Browns. He limited Green, one of the league’s best receivers, to just three catches for 23 yards on 10 targets. Haden has struggled against Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown, but the Bengals have already faced the Steelers twice this season.

Nowhere to run

The matchup suggested a lot of rushing yards—the teams entered tied for 30th in the NFL in rush yards per game allowed, and both had success on the ground recently. That wasn’t really the case on Thursday. Cincinnati fell behind early and didn’t commit to the run, totaling 22 carries compared to 39 passes. Jeremy Hill’s fumble didn’t help matters. On the other side, Cleveland did rush for an impressive 170 yards, but it took 52 attempts, good for just 3.3 per carry. Still, it was enough for Brian Hoyer to be efficient (15 of 23, no turnovers) and guide his team to an easy victory.

Leah Strong

Sports are great for many reasons, none better than when they have a positive effect off the field. Leah Still, who has Stage 4 pediatric cancer and is the four-year-old daughter of Bengals defensive tackle Devon Still, attended last night’s game. She was recognized in a pre-game ceremony and the Bengals later announced a $1.3 million check in her name to Cincinnati’s Children’s Hospital and Medical Center. On the heels of last weekend’s basketball game honoring Lauren Hill, we were reminded of all the good sports can do.

Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local who also writes for Newsday and The Wall Street Journal. He writes about the NFL and other sports at AndrewJKahn.com. Email him at andrewjkahn@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn

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