CLEVELAND - With one quick snap, the Cincinnati Bengals cracked the Browns in half.
A.J. Green caught Cleveland's defense napping for his first career catch, a 41-yard touchdown from backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, giving the Cincinnati Bengals a stunning 27-17 win Sunday to spoil a sloppy debut by the Browns in coach Pat Shurmur's debut.
Green was left uncovered by the Browns, who were slow coming out of the huddle. All Gradkowski, on in relief of injured rookie Andy Dalton, had to do was lob the ball to Green. The speedy wideout did the rest, scoring with 4:31 left to shock the Browns and their fans, who watched Cleveland fall to 1-12 in season openers since 1999.
The play was equally surprising for the Bengals, who jumped in celebration at the improbable TD. This was the kind of play that has happened to Cincinnati in recent years.
Colt McCoy threw two TD passes for the Browns, who were disorganized for much of Shurmur's first game. Cleveland committed 11 penalties – 10 in the first half – and for some reason the Browns' defense wasn't ready for the key third-and-11 and Cincinnati made them pay.
Cornerback Joe Haden, who had kept Green without a catch for more than 50 minutes, scrambled and tried to catch the first-round pick to no avail.
Cedric Benson put it away with a 39-yard TD run with 1:49 left. Benson, who recently served jail time on an assault charge, finished with 121 yards on 25 carries. Mike Nugent kicked field goals of 24 and 47 yards for Cincinnati.
Considered by some to be the NFL's worst team, and with veteran quarterback Carson Palmer sitting out in a standoff with ownership, the Bengals somehow won their first opener since 2007.
And they had to do it with Gradkowski, their third-string QB.
Dalton was hit as he tried to pass by Browns rookie defensive tackle Phil Taylor on Cincinnati's final offensive play in the first half. Dalton, trying to become only the fifth rookie since 1970 to win his debut on the road, favored his arm as he came off the field and was checked by trainers before going to the locker room.
He didn't come out for warmups and Gradkowski, who started Cleveland's final game in 2008, took over.
Gradkowski went 5 of 12 for 92 yards, but he was alert and accurate on the decisive play.
Playing in Shurmur's new West Coast offense, McCoy threw a 34-yard TD to Ben Watson and 2-yarder to Evan Moore. McCoy finished 19 of 40 for 213 yards and had several attempts tipped away. His final attempt was batted around and intercepted with 1:06 left.
Before he was injured, Dalton went 10 of 15 for 81 yards, throwing a 2-yard TD pass to Jermaine Gresham as the Bengals opened a 13-0 lead.
With the Browns trailing and their fans booing, Josh Cribbs turned the game with a 51-yard kickoff return.
After watching three kicks sail past him for touchbacks, Cribbs, the NFL career leader with eight kickoff return TDs, fielded Nugent's kick 9 yards deep and took matters into his own hands.
He brought it back to the 42. Three plays later, McCoy patiently waited for Watson to clear coverage before lofting a deep pass to his tight end, cutting Cincinnati's lead to 13-7.
Cleveland's defense responded by holding the Bengals to a three-and-out, and McCoy set up Cleveland's next TD with one of his best passes as a pro.
Rolling right and pressured by linebacker Thomas Howard, McCoy heaved an off-balance pass to wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, who got behind Cincinnati's secondary. Two plays later, McCoy hit the 6-foot-6 Moore for the TD.
Shurmur's first quarter as a head coach couldn't have gone much worse as the Browns were called for six penalties, gained 3 yards rushing and were badly outplayed.