HOUSTON - Mike Nugent hit an ice-cold 49-yard field goal with 1:55 left in the game that gave the Bengals enough breathing room for a 22-13 victory over the Texans that kept them in first place in the wild AFC North at 7-3-1.
They took eight minutes off the clock at NRG Stadium with 17 plays and two timeouts in building a stunning 20-minute edge in time of possession, but could only manage a 31-yard field goal from Nugent that expanded the Cincinnati lead to 19-13 with 8:48 left in the game.
In the drive, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton hit wide receiver A.J. Green for his personal-best 12th catch and wide receiver Mohamed Sanu made a diving third-down grab to keep it going. But when they got into the red zone, Dalton's bid to hit them both in the end zone barely missed and a third-down bid to tight end Jermaine Gresham went over his head to bring on Nugent.
Dalton got that first win in his hometown of Houston with a steel-belted 84.6 passer rating on 233 passing yards that went with a TD and a pick six. Green finished with 121 yards on those 12 catches.
Then the Bengals defense, as it did much of a day they didn't give up a TD, followed that with a huge three-and-out. But the offense couldn't come up with that killing clock-draining drive and it also had to punt on a three-and-out. Dalton couldn't get his feet set after the play clock ticked down and he threw it low to Gresham on third down.
But the defense responded again with another three-and-out and gave the ball back to the Bengals with 4:58 left, courtesy of left end Carlos Dunlap's sack, saving the only sack of quarterback Ryan Mallett for the very last and best.
But with 4:06 left, the Bengals faced another long third down after two runs to Jeremy Hill got just five yards. But a nine-yard throw to Hill in the flat got the first down and then Hill took off on a 30-yard gain to the Texans 15 with 2:41 left that forced Houston to use up all its timeouts before they got the ball back. Giovani Bernard lost five yards on a safety blitz before Bernard looked to get the first down back to end it with a spinning move inside the 15.
But rookie fullback Ryan Hewitt was called for a holding call and Nugent suddenly had to try a 49-yard field goal. He's hit eight straight since his miss at the overtime gun in the 37-37 tie with Carolina Oct. 12 Hill bobbed for 87 yards on 18 carries and Bernard weaved for 45 more on 17 carries.
The Bengals saw their 16-3 lead implode midway through the third quarter when old friend Johnathan Joseph stepped in front of Green and picked off a harassed Dalton for a 59-yard interception return that cut the lead over the Texans to 16-10 with 7:19 left.
Joseph, the former Bengal, has picked off Dalton in every game Dalton has played here in his hometown and it was Joseph's first interception and ignited a crowd that had been lulled by the Benglas' dominance in taking a 9-3 half-time lead.
It was natural that Dalton would go to Green because until that point the Texans couldn't cover him. Green tied his personal best with 11 catches (108 yards) when Dalton got chased out of the pocket on an all-out blitz and he tried to unload it to Green working on Joseph near the right sideline.
But it turned into Dalton's first turnover on the road this season and got the steamroller going. Dalton missed on his next two passes and the Texans went 75 yards after the punt and cut the lead to 16-13 with 1:48 left in the third quarter on Randy Bullock's 25-yard field goal.
Quarterback Ryan Mallett, in his second NFL start, moved them with quick, short passes, but on third-and-five from the Bengals 12, Cincinnati stood up with a blitz and cornerback Terence Newman made a good play defending wide receiver Andre Johnson over the middle.
Bengals middle linebacker Rey Maualuga couldn't have given the Bengals a better start to the second half when he intercepted the first snap at the Texans 22. Mallett took a shot over the middle to wide receiver Keshawn Martin, but Maualuga dropped into coverage and nabbed it.
Dalton then converted a third down when he and Green conspired to complete a back-shoulder throw and rookie running back Jeremy Hill scored on third-and-two from the two when they ran a counter with fullback Domata Peko. So just 2:58 into the half the Bengals had a 16-3 lead.
The Bengals got a safety from a stingy defense that kept Mallett out of the end zone and Dalton finally had a nice homecoming in the first half when he staked his club to a 9-3 half-time lead hitting 16 of 18 passes for 151 yards.
But they couldn't escape the grueling run of injuries. ProFootballTalk.com reported that right tackle Andre Smith suffered a significant tripceps injury and with five games left after this one that could put him out for the year.
Dalton and Green played pitch-and-catch on two third downs and wide receiver Mohamed Sanu ran over Texans cornerback A.J. Bouye on a screen for the final six yards of a 94-yard touchdown drive that gave Cincinnati 7-0 lead with 1:19 left in the first quarter.
The Bengals had a chance to go up 14-0 with another grinding 80-yard drive that put them on the Texans 1 with 9:02 left in the second quarter. When the Texans realized that Bouye couldn't cover Green, they benched him in favor of Darryl Morris and Dalton kept going to him. They got to the 1 with Dalton hitting 13 of his first 15 passes for 126 yards and Green catching seven of them for 72 yards. Green finished the half with nine catches for 90 yards, putting him within reach of Carl Pickens' club record of 13 set in 1998.
They felt so good about the matchup that they went Green working on Morris on fourth-and-1. Dalton threw a good ball, but Green came down out of bounds.
That set up the safety as Mallett appeared to change the run when safety Reggie Nelson threatened the right side with a blitz. Mallett went the other way and defensive tackles Domata Peko and Geno Atkins pushed into the end zone and dumped Texans running back Alfred Blue for their second safety of the season with Atkins getting the credit for the tackle.
But the Bengals couldn't advantage. Dalton had clear sailing on a third-down scramble, but he was tripped up a yard shy of the first down by safety D.J. Swearinger.
The Texans then took advantage for their only score of the half, a 67-yard drive that consumed 5:04 and resulted in Bullock's 36-yard field goal with 1:45 left in the half that cut the Bengals' lead to 9-3.
The drive featured the Texans' going to a hurry-up offense and giving Mallett short, quick drops. The Bengals probably should have a called a timeout when Houston reached the Bengals 30 on fourth-and-two and went hurryup and the Bengals couldn't get lined up in time to stop running back Johnathan Grimes' six yard run.
But the Bengals held on third-and-6 from the Bengals 18 went their blitz hurried Mallett into a bad throw to Johnson working on Newman and Bullock kicked the field goal.
The Bengals had the final 1:45 left with one timeout, but they had a curious two-minute drill that seemed to lack some urgency.
Sanu ignited the first half's one touchdown drive when he caught a third-and-seven crossing pattern from the Bengals 11 and Bernard took advantage of left tackle Andrew Whitworth and right tackle Marshall Newhouse lined up next to each other for 19 yards. Hill then cut one back for 13 yards and when Dalton faced third-and-two, he threw it where only a leaping Green could catch it against Bouye.
Then on third-and-two from the Texans 13, Joseph, staying on the left corner and not flipping, gave Green about a seven-yard cushion and Dalton converted it easily for the first down to set up the touchdown to Sanu on the next play.
The Bengals defensive game plan came up huge when they stacked up Blue with strong line play and forced Mallett to negotiate several third-and-longs.
Blue, off a 156-yard day in Cleveland last week, had just 30 yards on 11 carries in the first half, while Mallett went nine of 15 for 66 yards. Blue had just 46 yards on 16 carries for the game.
Mallett got chased on the first third donwn and threw an interception to Newman at the Texans 30, but Newman was called for pass interference when he pushed down wide receiver Andre Johnson. Then on third-and-nine Dunlap missed a sack and Mallett wriggled away and threw a 14-yard completiion to Andre Johnson. The Bengals then stopped the next third down to force a punt when cornerback Adam Jones, coming back from nicking his knee, defended for the incompletion working against Andre Johnson.
The Bengals first brush with defensive lineman J.J. Watt didn't go well. On second-and-five, the second play of the game, Watt lined up over Andre Smith and he flowed to the left and cut down Bernard for a one-yard gain.
Then after the Bengals converted the third-and-four on a quick sideline throw to Gresham when the Bengals won a spot challenge, they had a second-and-two, but the Texans stoned Bernard on the next two snaps and the Bengals had to punt away the first possession.
On their next possession they lost Andre Smith for the game and possibly the season when he injured his left arm trying to block Watt. After Watt blocked a pass headed to a wide open Green, Smith went to his knees holding his arm. Newhouse went in for Smith and was over Watt most of the time and held the NFL's best defensive player to no sacks.
PREGAME NOTES: The Bengals started running back Giovani Bernard Sunday and opted to go with just four wide receivers when they shelved Dane Sanzenbacher and Greg Little for the game at NRG Stadium.
The Texans iced running back Arian Foster (groin), meaning Bengals rookie running back Jeremy Hill watched LSU backup Alfred Blue get the start for Houston.
With Bengals backup right end Margus Hunt (ankle) inactive and the Texans expected to try and repeat last Sunday's 200-plus-yard effort on the ground, head coach Marvin Lewis went heavy up front with Devon Still and rookie Will Clarke backing up at tackle and right end, respectively.
Hunt and injured WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict (knee) also didn't play. With Bernard playing for the first time since missing three games, backup running back Rex Burkhead was inactive. So were backup cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris and backup guard-tackle Tanner Hawkinson.
Burfict was the only starter not available with cornerback Terence Newman (one game ) and right tackle Andre Smith (two games) returning after absences. Vincent Rey made his eighth start of the season and fourth straight at WILL for Burfict.
Going with just four receivers could indicate the Bengals plan to max protect against the Texans' pass rush featuring lineman J.J. Watt and use a heavy diet of their tight ends and fullback Ryan Hewitt.
For the first time this season the Texans opted to keep the roof of the stadium open on a sun-splashed day with a kick-off temperature of 71 degrees.
President H.W. Bush was at midfield for the coin toss that the Texans won and deferred. The Bengals captains got a chance to greet the 41st president before the coin flip.