Tied 14-all at halftime, Cincinnati (7-6) scored on the first two drives of the second half, and the defense shut out the Colts (7-6) the rest of the way.
Here are five takeaways from the win:
1. Browning overcomes adversity
Browning threw a pick-6 that allowed the Colts to tie the game at 14 going into halftime moments after they had gotten on the board with their first touchdown, but he rebounded. He led the Bengals on a pair of scoring drives to open the second half, including his own rushing touchdown, and that 14-point lead was safe even when Browning had to leave the game early in the fourth quarter for a drive and one play.
A.J. McCarron replaced him on a third down after Browning couldn’t throw the ball because of cramping in his hand, and the Bengals punted but got the ball back when the Colts muffed the return and rookie D.J. Ivey recovered it. Cincinnati tacked on a 32-yard field goal before Browning re-entered and finished the final 10 minutes.
Browning completed 18 of 24 passes for 275 yards and two touchdowns, plus a rushing touchdown. He has a 79.3 percent completion percentage and 113.4 passer rating through his first three starts, the best in NFL history for any quarterback in his first three starts.
“Just the moxie that he’s coming out with, the energy that he brings, the swagger, the confidence,” left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. said. “It’s there, and we’re rallying behind him. He’s QB1.”
2. Offense finding new identity
The Bengals have scored 34 points in back-to-back wins, and they are doing it in different ways. A more effective running game has been a big part of the team’s success the last two weeks, and the running backs have been helping more in the passing game, particularly on screen passes.
Rookie running back Chase Brown got things going with a 54-yard touchdown off a screen pass in the first quarter, a play in which his speed was on display when he hit 22.05 miles per hour before cutting inside to avoid a tackle at the 5-yard line. Brown finished with three catches for 80 yards and also has recorded his first two multiple-carry games, as the Bengals topped 100 yards rushing for a second week in a row.
Joe Mixon rushed for 79 yards on 21 carries and a touchdown and added three catches for 46 yards.
“There’s sort of different elements of talent that we have,” right tackle Jonah Williams said. “Mixon is a huge, physical back, … then we’ve got some of the speediest receivers in the league, and then there’s Chase Brown, who hits 22 miles-per-hour. It’s like we’re super variable on how we can attack people.”
3. Defense steps up again
Trey Hendrickson was called for roughing the passer on a third-and-14 that went for just nine yards, and that allowed the Colts to extend a drive to get on the board with their first touchdown. However, he and the defense bounced back in the second half to shut out Indianapolis the rest of the way.
Cincinnati allowed just one first down between the first two drives of the second half, and Hendrickson played a role in a redzone stop with 9:30 left when he pressured Gardner Minshew on a pass that B.J. Hill tipped to himself for an interception. The Bengals then forced a turnover on downs the next drive, and that ended it.
“It was pretty awesome,” Hill said of his pick. “I wish I could have scored somehow but I’m just glad to be able to make the play. Trey made a big play right there to force the pass and I was able to catch it.”
The run defense and allowing explosives have been the Achilles heel of the Bengals, but Indianapolis managed just 46 yards rushing and had only two plays over 20 yards.
4. Offensive line protecting
The Bengals didn’t allow any sacks and the quarterbacks were hit just three times, and Bengals coach Zac Taylor called the offensive line’s performance “awesome,” noting Ted Karras had a big block on the nickel cornerback to help set up Brown’s touchdown.
Browning was pretty pleased with the protection as well.
“The O-line is playing great football,” Browning said. “I think there’s a lot written about our guys on the outside, and obviously they’re some of the best players in the NFL too, and Joe Mixon is a great running back, but our O-line and our tight ends have been blocking their (tails) off, and I think that’s a big part of why we’ve been successful.”
5. Back in the playoff picture
If the season ended after the Bengals won their game Sunday, they would be in the playoffs with the seventh seed in the AFC despite being one of six teams with six losses. The Colts (7-6) had a head-to-head advantage over the Texans (7-6), and the Bengals have the head-to-head over Indianapolis, so that is enough to put them in the playoff picture with games still being played in Week 14.
It’s a much different outlook than three weeks ago when Browning’s first start resulted in a 16-10 loss to the Steelers for a third straight loss.
“You can’t count a team like this out, never,” Hill said. “We’re a scary team. Nobody wants to play us. This is when we play our best ball around this time, so I’m excited for the rest of the season.”