CLEVELAND — Lost for three weeks, Andy Dalton and the Bengals finally found their footing in a familiar place.
All it took was a trip to the shores of Lake Erie.
Dalton threw three of his four touchdown passes in the first half and Cincinnati’s offence found the perfect opponent to work out some early season struggles as the Bengals rolled to a 31-7 win Sunday over the overmatched Browns.
Dalton only missed on one throw in the first half, going 17 of 18 for 215 yards as the Bengals (1-3) built a 21-0 lead, cleared out FirstEnergy Stadium and won their sixth in a row over their in-state rival.
"This was the next one on the schedule and we wanted to do whatever we could to get a win," said Dalton, who completed 16 straight passes in one stretch. "We needed it. There’s one."
Cincinnati has won its past four games in Cleveland by a combined 121-20.
Entering as the NFL’s No. 30 ranked quarterback, Dalton connected with A.J. Green, Tyler Croft and Giovani Bernard in the first half while dissecting the young Browns (0-4), who were again plagued by mistakes and were down three defensive starters.
Dalton finished 25 of 30 for 286 yards. His second TD to Croft in the third quarter made it 31-0, and sent even some of the most die-hard Browns fans toward the exits.
The performance continued a stunning turnaround for Dalton, who didn’t throw a TD pass and had four interceptions in his first two games. In the past two weeks, he has six TDs and no picks.
This was the breakthrough the Bengals were looking for after a sluggish start, which included coach Marvin Lewis firing offensive co-ordinator Ken Zampese after the offence failed to score a TD in its first two games.
But after a solid performance last week with Bill Lazor calling plays in an overtime loss at Green Bay, the Bengals broke free against the Browns.
Cleveland fell to 1-19 in two seasons under coach Hue Jackson, who has been handed the league’s youngest roster and is trying to break in rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer without many weapons.
The Browns are hurting themselves with unforced errors, but they’re also regressing since a 21-18 loss to Pittsburgh in Week 1.
"I am not going to let this team go backward," Jackson said. "We did today. There is no question about that. We have some work to do. I think to a man in there, we will go back to work. We will put our heads down and get better."
Following the game, Jackson embraced his former boss, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, who was asked what he told his good friend.
"Don’t let them quit on you," Lewis said.
The Browns were again without top pick Myles Garrett. The rookie pass rusher returned to practice Thursday and didn’t report any problems, but the Browns are being cautious and will delay his regular-season debut at least one more week. They were also missing starting outside linebacker Jamie Collins (concussion) and massive tackle Danny Shelton (calf).
Dalton dominated the rest of Cleveland’s defence.
Already up by two TDs, the Bengals got the ball back with 1:40 left in the first half and appeared content to play it safe and maybe get into field-goal position.
But the Browns blitzed and Dalton alertly dumped the ball into the right flat to the speedy Bernard. With a convoy of blockers in front of him, Bernard streaked untouched to the end zone for a 61-yard touchdown.
Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict returned from his three-game suspension, giving Cincinnati’s defence some pop — literally. Burfict made his presence known with his typical hits and he was also flagged for roughing Kizer in the fourth quarter, a shot that will likely earn him more league discipline.
Kizer was only sacked once after being dropped 10 times in the first three games, but he absorbed some punishment while going 16 of 34 for 118 yards.
"Those guys are big," he said. "You are going to feel every hit you take. Got out of there with no bumps and bruises."
Since winning in Cincinnati on Nov. 6, 2014 to improve to 6-3, the Browns are 4-38.
The Browns remain the only team in the league not to lead at any point through four games. They had an early chance after Emmanuel Ogbah’s strip sack of Dalton on Cincinnati’s first possession.
But Cleveland didn’t gain a yard in three plays and rookie Zane Gonzalez missed a 48-yard field goal.
Adam "Pacman" Jones, who turned 34 on Saturday, helped set up Cincinnati’s first touchdown with a 40-yard punt return.
Bengals: H-back Ryan Hewitt injured his knee in the first half and didn’t return. C T.J. Johnson also went out with a neck injury.
Browns: WR Jordan Leslie (hamstring), LB Dominique Alexander (knee).
Bengals: Host Buffalo.
Browns: Host the New York Jets, led by former Cleveland quarterback Josh McCown.