CHICAGO — Despite heading into the fourth quarter with a 137-yard edge in offense and nearly seven minutes in time of possession, the Bengals let a should-have-could-have opener slip through their hands in a 24-21 defeat to the Bears at Soldier Field.
The game was summed up when middle linebacker Rey Maualuga was called for a personal foul with 1:06 left that prevented the Bengals from getting the ball back and ended the game.
Earlier in the final period, with too many men on the field for their defense, the Bengals had to take their last timeout with 8:06 left. But that didn't prevent Cutler from scrambling for 18 yards on second-and-20, or from running back Matt Forte going wide to convert a fourth-and-one, or for Marshall beating safety Reggie Nelson for a 19-yard touchdown with 7:58 left to put Chicago ahead to stay.
Then when the Bengals went three-and-out with six minutes left, they couldn't get the ball back with Cutler converting a third-and-nine when tight end Martellus Bennett, lined up as the widest receiver, beat cornerback Leon Hall over the middle for the first down with about five minutes left.
The Bengals couldn't overcome three turnovers and eight penalties and a bevvy of blown chances that handed the Bears a field goal at the end of the first half. The Bengals couldn't take advantage of linebacker Vontaze Burfict's interception of Cutler with more than 13 minutes left when wide receiver Mohamed Sanu handed the ball back on a fumble about a minute later as they were getting into the red zone.
The Bengals overcame a brutal first six minutes of their 2013 season to stage an air show in the first half with quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green accounting for 129 yards and two touchdowns as the Bengals took a 14-10 halftime lead.
But the Bengals playcalling and an unsportsmanlike penalty on cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick handed Bears kicker Robbie Gould his career-long 58-yard field goal at the end of the half even though Chicago had only one timeout left when it got the ball back with 37 seconds left.
Cornerback Adam Jones let a punt bounce behind him to his own 12 with 1:43 left and the Bengals chose to throw an incomplete pass on second down to Green that stopped the clock after running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis lost four yards on first down.
Not only that, but Green left the game as the doctors looked at his left hand. He returned in the second half with the hand taped.
Wary of Bears punt returner Devin Hester, Kevin Huber punted out of his own end zone 44 yards out of bounds. With the first half winding down Kirkpatrick got caught hitting wide receiver Eric Weems out of bounds and Gould had time to drill the second longest field goal ever against the Bengals and the longest since Steve Cox of Cleveland hit a 60-yarder in 1984.
Green had a field day before then capping touchdown drives of 97 and 91 yards. Before Dalton hit Green with a 45-yard touchdown where Green fried cornerback Tim Jennings down the right sideline with cornerback Charles Tillman getting a rest on the bench, Dalton kept the drive alive with a tremendous third-and-10 throw to Green on the Bears sideline on a 21-yard completion that he threaded between cornerback Zack Bowman and strong safety Major Wright.
Dalton finished the game 26-of-33 passing for 282 yards and a 97.2 passer rating despite two interceptions.
The Bengals reeled off a nine-play, 97-yard touchdown drive against the NFL's fifth-best defense that tied it at seven with 2:34 left in the first quarter when a wide-open Green ran a Pro Bowl pivot route in front of the Pro Bowl Tillman for a two-yard touchdown pass on third down.
The drive was highlighted by Green outfoxing Tillman for a 42-yard catch down the right sideline to put the ball on the Bears 4. Tillman was so concerned about Green beating him outside that he allowed Green to slide inside for a big play the Bengals didn't get much at the end of last season. Green went the last five games of last year without a catch longer than 21 yards.
The drive also featured the first big plays of Cincinnati's first two draft picks. Tight end Tyler Eifert picked up a first down on Dalton's bootleg pass on a 17-yard catch and Dalton found running back Giovani Bernard for eight yards on a dump pass. After wide receiver Marvin Jones ran a reverse for 14 yards, Bernard hammered behind right guard Kevin Zeitler and right tackle Andre Smith for six yards.
But Green had a bad drop on the next series that stopped Dalton's streak of five straight completions and turned into his second interception when Green got his hands on a ball over the middle that would have been a 15-yard gain but the ball ticked up in the air and Tillman grabbed it and went 37 yards the other way to the Bengals 42.
The defense then finished off a nice three-and-out stand when on third down linebackers Vontaze Burfict and James Harrison appeared to switch positions and forced the Bears offensive line to regroup before Cutler threw an incompletion.
The shaky start began when Adam Jones's punt return to the Bears 28 was nullified by an illegal block on running back Cedric Peerman and Dalton had his second pass of the year picked off by Tillman to set up Cutler's eight-yard touchdown pass to Bennett that put Cincinnati in a 7-0 hole 5:08 into the schedule.
Tillman, who anchored the Bears 44-turnover machine of a year ago, appeared to fool Dalton when he broke inside on Green's slant to set up Chicago at the Bengals 35.
The Bengals woes continued when Cutler converted a third-and-17 on a dart over Burfict to Marshall for an 18-yard gain.
Then on second down, Cutler found Bennett on the back line of the end zone and Bennett outfought safety George Iloka to gain possession as he got both feet inbounds. Iloka, playing with a soft cast on his broken hand, couldn't win the tug-of-war with Bennett when he failed to rip out the ball.
PREGAME HITS: In a nod to what is expected to be their extensive use of double tight-end sets, the Bengals opted to go with four wide receivers in Sunday's opener against the Bears at Soldier Field.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis sat Ryan Whalen and Dane Sanzenbacher while keeping up three tight ends, as well as H-back Orson Charles, another guy that can play tight end. The Bengals take a bit of a hit on special teams with the loss of Whalen at a spot where they have usually kept five active receivers.
But that was before last year's draft and the selections of tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard, players than can also be used as receivers.
The three injured players were also inactive, left tackle Andrew Whitworth, backup cornerback Brandon Ghee (concussion) and backup guard-center Mike Pollak (knee). Also down were a pair of rookies, running back Rex Burkhead and defensive end Margus Hunt.
Lewis is going with the idea of game captains instead of permanent captains. Last year in midseason he put the Cs on quarterback Andy Dalton and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, but on Sunday he seemed to opt for the seniority route.
He kept Dalton for the offense and went with center Kyle Cook, the offense's senior player with Whitworth inactive. On defense he went with the two most seasoned starters in tackle Domata Peko and cornerback Leon Hall. Running back Cedric Peerman, the four-year punt personal protector, represented the special teams.