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Impressive Browns move into first-place tie as Dalton, Bengals implode

Ready to believe in the Cleveland Browns now?

The upstart Browns stormed into Cincinnati on Thursday night and absolutely mopped the floor with the defending division champs, 24-3. At least temporarily, the Browns have pulled into a first-place tie in the AFC North, pending Pittsburgh's game on Sunday.

Three thoughts on Cleveland's rock solid win:

1. Andy Dalton was beyond awful. 

The Browns' defense has been outstanding for much of the year and especially over the past few weeks (more on all that in a minute), but ... man, Andy Dalton ...

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Right from the start, Dalton turned in one of the worst quarterbacking performances the NFL has seen this season. His second pass attempt of the game was intercepted by Craig Robertson. And just in case most of the blame for that one fell on TE Jermaine Gresham, who appeared to cut short his route, Dalton fired two more INTs as part of a 10-for-33 night. Cleveland safety Tashuan Gipson dropped a Dalton overthrow that hit him right in the hands, too.

Even having A.J. Green in the lineup for a second straight week did little to help. Dalton's QB rating on the evening: 2.0. Were it not for Geno Smith's three-interception, two-completion short outing a couple weeks back, which netted him a 0.0 rating, Dalton's mark would stand as the worst of the season. Matt Schaub also posted a 0.0 by throwing one pass -- on a fake field goal -- for an interception.

The conditions were not ideal on Thursday night, the wind whipping around Paul Brown Stadium. Perhaps Dalton can blame a gust for one or two of the deep passes that sailed on him. Cleveland QB Brian Hoyer had no such trouble, however, zipping passes all over the field in an impressive performance.

This was the worst of Andy Dalton. That it came on a national-TV stage and in a critical AFC North game will not escape his critics. 

The Bengals are now 5-3-1, with five of their last seven games away from home. Recovering from their Week 10 humiliation will be impossible if Dalton cannot figure out what went so horribly wrong.

2. Mike Pettine ... Coach of the Year?

With Dallas sliding a bit as the season reached its midway point, the Coach of the Year race seemed to stack up with Arizona's Bruce Arians in the lead and everyone else well behind. 

Perhaps it's time to revisit the pecking order.

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Now at 6-3 and with wins over Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, the Cleveland Browns are smack-dab in the middle of the playoff race. This marks the first season since 2007 that Cleveland will finish with more than five wins, and Thursday's rout of the Bengals also snapped the franchise's 17-game road losing streak within the AFC North.

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​Pettine and co. have accomplished all they have despite a roster that has yet to be at full strength. Let's not forget that star WR Josh Gordon has not been on the field in 2014 (he is expected back for Week 12). Center Alex Mack is on injured reserve with a leg injury. For the key matchup vs. Cincinnati, the Browns were down TE Jordan Cameron and WR Andrew Hawkins, too.

Cleveland's offense still put up 24 points and more than 350 yards, while the defense dominated. 

"For us, it's always been about next man up," Hoyer said on the NFL Network's postgame show. "We know we've got two Pro Bowl players (Gordon and Cameron) who are right around the corner from getting back, so that will help tremendously."

The Browns have not made the playoffs since 2002. If they do -- heck, even if they come close -- Pettine might swipe the Coach of the Year award from under Arians' nose.

3. Cleveland's cast of characters, led by QB Brian Hoyer, keeps getting it done. 

I mentioned a few of the Browns' missing pieces above. But it was hard to notice those absences on Thursday, because the guys Cleveland did have brought it from start to finish. 

The redemption song starts with Hoyer. Any semblance of a Hoyer-Johnny Manziel quarterback controversy that existed as recently as the Browns' Week 7 loss to Jacksonville and subsequent sloppy win over Oakland has dissipated.

While Hoyer did nothing remarkable Thursday (15 of 23 for 198 yards and a touchdown), he threw the ball with confidence. Cleveland fed off that mojo, too, its offensive line setting an early tone by pushing Cincinnati's front off the line. The three-headed run game of Terrance West, Isaiah Crowell and Ben Tate followed suit. 

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Part of why this Cleveland Browns season has developed into such a riveting tale is that the star power is minimal. Yet, the wins keep on coming.

"We play as a team. We don't care who gets the credit," Hoyer said. "Tonight, we were able to get the run game going a little bit to help with the pass game. The defense played lights out. ... We keep playing together as a team, we can do special things."

On account of the short week, Thursday night games often come down to which teams are better coached and better prepared. There's no question that Cleveland fit the bill this time around, nor is there any doubt as we head further into November that the Browns are a legitimate threat.