With a mostly meaningless loss to the Bengals in the books, the Browns could turn their attention to preparing for their first playoff game in three years.
Cleveland coach Kevin Stefanski rested most of his starters Sunday in a 31-14 loss to Cincinnati. The Browns will play at AFC South champion Houston in the wild-card round on Saturday.
Locked in as the No. 5 seed in the AFC, Cleveland (11-6) was content to play out the regular season with backups before its second postseason appearance in the last 21 seasons.
“This is what you work for,” Browns defensive end Ogbo Okoronkwo said. “These are the days you dream about. Feels good to put ourselves in position to win the big one.”
“When you look at these games, it’s about what’s best for your football team,” Stefanski said. “I knew what this game was, a great opportunity for young guys to get some reps.”
The Bengals were more motivated.
The Bengals led 24-0 at halftime. Browns quarterback Jeff Driskel — signed Dec. 29 from Arizona’s practice squad — didn’t fare well against Cincinnati’s defensive regulars until the fourth quarter, when he threw two touchdown passes to David Bell.
The Bengals had a difficult season. Franchise quarterback Joe Burrow wasn’t at full strength to start the season and suffered a season-ending wrist injury in the 10th game. Other key players missed chunks of time.
“I thought our guys handled it professionally and finished it the right way,” Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor said.
Cincinnati (9-8) finished above .500 for the third straight season, and the AFC North became the first division since the 1970 merger to have all its teams finish above .500. The Bengals avoided going winless against divisional foes.
“Going 1-5 (in the division) is in no way, shape or form acceptable to us,” Taylor said.
Mixon’s 1-yard rushing TD in the first quarter was his ninth of the season and 49th of his career, moving him to No. 2 on the Bengals’ all-time list behind Pete Johnson’s 64. Mixon also finished with 1,034 yards rushing, his fourth time in seven seasons topping the 1,000-yard mark.
Driskel had 166 yards passing — 111 in the fourth quarter — and two interceptions.
Stefanski said he hadn’t determined who would back up Flacco against the Texans.
Browns DT Shelby Harris suffered a shin injury in the second quarter and didn’t return. Stefanski said Harris “will be OK.” … LB Mohamoud Diabate left with a thumb injury in the second half. … RB Pierre Strong Jr. went out with a back injury. … WR Cedric Tillman was evaluated for a head injury.
This is the first time since 1988 that both the Browns and Bengals finished above .500 in the same season. The Bengals went to Super Bowl that season, and Browns lost in wild-card round.