CLEVELAND -- The Bengals needed this win badly. A meeting against the winless Browns couldn’t have come at a more perfect time.
If the Bengals were going to save their season, they needed to build on their overtime loss to the Packers last week.
A close game against Cleveland wasn’t going to cut it, but a 31-7 dismantling might mean something else entirely.
It’s too soon to say whether the Bengals have turned things around. That will have to wait until they beat a team that has won a game, and with the Bills up next, that challenge will come quickly.
The Bengals are still 1-3 and sit toward the bottom of the AFC North standings. Beating up on the hapless Browns would have been expected at the beginning of the season. But after one of the worst starts in recent Bengals history, there were no guarantees. They should, and likely will, celebrate this one for a few days. If nothing else, this performance eases some of the tension that's likely been lingering around Cincinnati for the past few weeks.
The Bengals badly needed to prove they were capable of putting together a great performance after three weeks of treading water. If nothing else, they needed to do it to get their confidence back.
Andy Dalton, who had one of the worst games of his career to start the season against the Ravens and struggled to move the offense against the Texans, probably needed it most.
Dalton was close to perfect against the Browns. He threw four touchdowns, reaching that milestone for just the fourth time in his career and for the first time since 2013.
He did it despite a protection problem that continues to haunt the Bengals, who were rotating three of their five linemen at times during the game. The Bengals' problems at both tackle positions and at right guard have certainly contributed to Dalton's ineffectiveness early in the season.
Figuring out how to move the chains despite the porous offensive line will be one of new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor's biggest challenges this season.
The Bills will bring a top-10 defense into Cincinnati next week, and how the Bengals handle that will say a lot about how their season will go from this point forward.
If the Bengals can put together another complete game to beat the Bills, they'll be 2-3 before their bye week and will have momentum before their Oct. 22 game in Pittsburgh. That would mean a chance to get back to .500 and be in contention for the division title again.
The Bengals have a chance to turn around a season that was teetering on the brink of disaster. The true test will come next week. But Sunday's win was a start, and the Bengals should celebrate that.