Back on top with only two NASCAR greats left to catch, Jimmie Johnson won his sixth championship in eight years Sunday and staked his claim as one of the most dominant competitors in sports history.
Essentially, it was over by halftime.
And now the Bengals have a chance to make quick work of the rest of the division, too.
Andy Dalton threw two touchdown passes and Cincinnati returned a blocked punt and a fumble for touchdowns during a 31-point second quarter on Sunday that set a Bengals record and swept them to a 41-20 victory over the Cleveland Browns.
The Bengals (7-4) fell behind 13-0 in the first quarter before putting it away with 15 minutes of domination all around.
“That was crazy,” defensive tackle Domata Peko said. “I haven’t seen anything like that — so many points in a couple of minutes and the momentum changing so fast.”
Cincinnati heads into its bye week with its division lead intact and two rough weeks washed away. The Bengals had lost their last two games in overtime, tying the NFL record and allowing the Browns (4-6) to draw close.
“Cleveland has done a lot of really good things, put themselves in position in the division that this was a really big game for both teams,” Dalton said.
The Browns had pegged it as a chance to show they’re a contender. Instead, they got their comeuppance — the most lopsided game in the intrastate series since Cincinnati’s 30-0 win in Cleveland in 2006.
“I’m disappointed we lost and in the way we lost, but we’ve got Pittsburgh coming in and the next two are at home,” linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “That gives us a chance to get back on track. I’m glad this one’s over.”
Dalton had a horrid start that helped Cleveland get a promising early lead. He threw two passes that were picked off by Joe Haden, who ran one of them back 29 yards for a touchdown and a 13-0 lead in the first quarter.
When the quarter ended, Cleveland fell apart.
Dalton threw touchdown passes of 25 yards to Jermaine Gresham and 6 yards to Mohamed Sanu, emerging from his recent funk. He has thrown eight interceptions in his last three games, a major factor in the two overtime losses.
The Bengals were just getting started on the highest-scoring quarter in their history.
Undrafted rookie Jayson DiManche blocked Spencer Lanning’s punt and safety Tony Dye — promoted from the practice squad one day earlier — returned it 24 yards for a touchdown. Cleveland hadn’t had a punt blocked in 20 years.
“It was surreal,” Dye said. “You never expect that to happen in a game, let alone your first game.”
More surreal to come.
One minute and 50 seconds later, linebacker Vontaze Burfict forced Chris Ogbonnaya to fumble after a catch and ran the ball back 13 yards for another touchdown. Mike Nugent’s 41-yard field goal capped off the quarter and made it 31-13.
The 31 points matched the second-most allowed by the Browns in one quarter. They hadn’t done it since they gave up 31 in the second quarter at Houston on Dec. 9, 1990. The club record is 35 points allowed in the first quarter of a 35-7 loss at Green Bay in 1967.
Dalton threw another touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, giving him three overall. He was 13 of 27 for only 93 yards.