CINCINNATI (AP) — Andy Dalton took the snap and went to his knee, finishing a double-digit victory that might suffice as his farewell to Cincinnati.
On the Browns sideline, Freddie Kitchens hugged Baker Mayfield at the end of a disappointing season that would culminate a few hours later with the first-year coach's firing.
From the top of Ohio to the bottom, it was misery all-around on a gray, rainy afternoon. And now, it's time to figure out who's going to be around for the next try to get it right.
Dalton threw for a touchdown and ran for another Sunday in his farewell as Cincinnati's franchise quarterback. A Joe Burrow banner in the upper deck reminded him what comes next as the Bengals wrapped up one of their most miserable seasons with a 33-23 victory that didn't end the day's developments.
The Browns (6-10) returned to Cleveland on Sunday night and announced that Kitchens had been fired. Owners Dee and Jimmy Haslem said in a statement that they didn't see the necessary improvement this season.
Players had sensed there might be a change.
“We’ll see what ownership does,” receiver Jarvis Landry said after the game. "Six-and-10 is definitely not acceptable.”
And so the Browns set off in search of their eighth head coach in 11 years.
The Bengals (2-14) will be looking for their next franchise quarterback with the first pick in the draft. Dalton wants to start somewhere next year, so this might have been his finale in tiger stripes.
"If that's the case, it was good to end it taking a knee," the ninth-year veteran said.
The two-win Bengals matched the worst record in their 52-year history. The last time they had the top pick in the draft was 2003, when they also were coming off a 2-14 finish and chose quarterback Carson Palmer.
For now, they ended a streak of 10 straight losses to AFC North opponents with Dalton leading the way.
“A true leader,” said first-year coach Zac Taylor, who benched Dalton for three games at midseason. “He's kept us afloat. You need your quarterback to lead by example.”
Cleveland was a chic Super Bowl pick with Mayfield coming off a sensational rookie season and Odell Beckham Jr. adding star quality to the offense. Instead, the Browns significantly regressed under Kitchens, who said after the game that he'd gotten no hint from management that his job was in jeopardy.
The intrastate rivals moved on with an uneven game that epitomized their seasons.
Dalton knew it was likely his final start for the Bengals after nine seasons without a playoff victory. A day earlier, Burrow threw seven touchdown passes in LSU's rout of Oklahoma, and the Bengals can take the Heisman Trophy winner if they wish.
A fan banner in the upper deck proclaimed: “CHRISTMAS COMES EARLY! WELCOME JOE!”
Dalton threw a 15-yard touchdown pass and scrambled 5 yards for another score in the Bengals' highest-scoring first half of the season for a 20-16 lead. He finished 16 of 28 for 190 yards.
“There's been a lot of support for me and my family from this city, not just for what we did on the field but off it,” Dalton said. “This city has meant a lot to my family.”
The Browns hitched their hopes to Mayfield, who was inconsistent behind an offensive line that struggled to protect him. He threw three interceptions and was sacked a season-high six times Sunday.
Mayfield threw touchdown passes of 46 yards to Damion Ratley, 56 yards to Jarvis Landry, and 20 yards to Beckham. He also threw a pair of interceptions to Darius Phillips, one of which set up a Bengals touchdown, and finished with 21 for the season.
“It's quite frustrating and embarrassing to me,” said Mayfield, who went 12 of 27 for 279 yards.
Cleveland will be looking for someone with more experience than Kitchens, who had never been a head coach before this season. He was elevated from running backs coach to offensive coordinator last season after Hue Jackson was fired.
Kitchens acknowledged Sunday that the first season involved a learning curve.
“Of course it's a big challenge,” Kitchens said. “There's a lot of firsts. I'm not making any excuses at all, but I think I learned during the course of the year so I can be a better version of myself moving forward. That's the only thing you can do.”
Mayfield took steps back, throwing five fewer touchdowns and seven more interceptions than in his rookie season. Mayfield said after the game that the Browns need more consistency and leadership, and he's going to work on providing both.
“Going to come back a different animal come springtime,” Mayfield said.
STATS & STUFF
Cleveland's Nick Chubb came in leading the NFL in rushing but managed only 41 yards and slipped behind Tennessee's Derrick Henry for the title. Henry ran for a season-high 211 yards to finish with 1,540, finishing 31 ahead of Chubb. Chubb's 1,509 yards were the most for Cleveland since Jim Brown had 1,544 in 1965. ... For the first time, the Browns had two receivers (Beckham, Landry) and a running back each top 1,000 yards in a season. ... Cincinnati's Joe Mixon ran for a career-high 162 yards and topped 1,000 for the second straight season. Tyler Boyd topped 1,000 yards receiving for the second year in a row. ... The Bengals ended a streak of three straight Browns victories in the intrastate series. Cincinnati leads the series overall 51-42.
The Bengals averaged 47,178 fans at Paul Brown Stadium this season, their lowest since it opened in 2000.
Browns: In 2020, Cleveland will try to end the NFL's longest active streak of failing to reach the playoffs — 17 straight years.
Bengals: In 2020, Cincinnati will try to end its 29-year streak without a playoff win, the fifth-longest in NFL history.
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