The Bengals dared Texans rookie quarterback T.J. Yates to beat them and he did with a six-yard touchdown pass with two seconds left when he hit former Bengals wide receiver Kevin Walter over the middle at the goal line to deliver a crushing 20-19 loss that puts 7-6 Cincinnati's playoff hopes in the hands of others.
With the Bengals holding defending NFL leading rusher Arian Foster to 2.7 yards per carry (41 yards on 15 carries), Yates went nuts in his second NFL start for 300 yards on 26-of-44 passing, two touchdowns and one interception.
The Bengals blew a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter when in the last minute Yates scrambled for 17 yards to the Cincinnati 23 with 25 seconds left and Bengals cornerback Adam Jones was called for grabbing Texans wide receiver Jacoby Jones's arm with 12 seconds left for a 17-yard penalty at the Bengals 6 on what had been a third-down incompletion before 41,202 at Paul Brown Stadium.
The Bengals had plenty of chances for their biggest win of the year and it turned into their biggest loss.
It looked like the Bengals had applied the killing blow early in the fourth quarter when Foster fumbled a screen pass at the Texans 25 for middle linebacker Rey Maualuga's second forced fumble of the game and defensive tackle Geno Atkins picked it up and rumbled inside the 10 when he fumbled and linebacker Manny Lawson and safety Reggie Nelson couldn't jump on it as it sat there. And the Texans got it back at their own 2.
From there, the Bengals gave up some big plays on short passes by Yates, but they held the Texans out of the end zone to force Neil Rackers's 33-yard field goal with 5:31 left in the game that cut the Cincinnati lead to 19-13.
The Bengals had a fourth-and-one from their 48 with 2:43 left when they lined up to draw Houston offsides. But backup right guard Mike McGlynn, playing for the injured Bobbie Willamms, false-started when he saw the Texans move into the neutral zone.
The Bengals did exactly what they didn't want to do when they decided to defer when they won the coin toss. They basically handed Houston seven points on the second snap of the second half when Bengals rookie tight end Colin Cochart couldn't block Texans leading sacker Connor Barwin on the edge and a sack and strip of Bengals quarterback Dalton ensued for Houston at the Bengals 17.
It took Yates just four snaps to throw a six-yard touchdown pass to tight end Joel Dreessen that cut the Bengals lead to 16-10.
But when the Bengals absolutely needed it, they turned to the gold dust twins and Dalton (16-of-28 for 189 yards) and wide receiver A.J. Green (five catches for 59 yards) responded when the team needed it most on the next drive. Working on on former Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph on a deep ball down the side Green drew a pass interference penalty at the Bengals 43.
Then Green pulled down another jump ball against Joseph in the middle of the field for a 36-yard gain that put the ball on the Texans 9, but on third down Barwin chased Dalton out of the pocket and Green was double-covered in the corner of the end zone on a high pass. Mike Nugent then hit his fourth field goal of the game, a 28-yarder that made it 19-10 with 2:07 left in the third quarter.
Staying true to his vow to be aggressive down the stretch, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis commandeered a series of point swings that resulted in 20 points to the good that staked his club to a 16-3 halftime lead over the Texans. A scant 24 seconds after old friend Rackers sliced a 47-yard field goal right, Nugent hit a 49-yarder of his own with six seconds left in the half to cap the Bengals 10-0 second quarter against a Houston team that came in outscoring foes 194-61 in the first half.
Lewis stayed aggressive after Rackers's miss with a shovel pass to wide receiver Andrew Hawkins moving from left to right behind the banged-up Bengals offensive line that came up with some big blocks on his 22-yard run. Dalton then hit tight end Jermaine Gresham across the middle for a 10-yarder that set up Nugent's third field goal of the game.
With the Bengals staring at a fourth-and-three from the Texans 35 with 5:09 left in the half, Lewis went for it and was rewarded with Dalton finding Green working one-on-one in the middle of the field against another old friend, Joseph, for an 11-yard gain. That set up Dalton's 18th touchdown pass of the season, half of them now on third down, and culminated a grinding 15-play, 97-yard drive highlighted by running back Cedric Benson's 39 yards on nine carries that gave him 92 yards on 13 carries at halftime.
(But he incredibly lost one yard on eight carries in the second half to finish with 91.)
Dalton drilled wide receiver Jerome Simpson on third-and-three for a 17-yard touchdown pass as he was getting drilled by end J.J. Watt. Simpson, running down the seam, leaped high above free safety Danieal Manning at the goal line for his third touchdown catch of the year a week after he was blanked in Pittsburgh.
The drive claimed right guard Bobbie Williams, lost for the game with an ankle injury. With right tackle Andre Smith already inactive with a sprained ankle, the Bengals were playing on the right side with McGlynn and tackle Anthony Collins.
Dalton finished the half 9-of-17 for 112 yards and a passer rating of 93.3 compared to his fellow rookie Yates going 9-of-16 for 129 yards and a 56.5 rating.
The play of the half belonged to Maualuga and was the first of the huge swings. Trailing 6-3, the Texans were about to punch it in from the Bengals 1 to end their own 12-play drive. But Maualuga stonewalled Tate, forced a fumble and recovered it at the 3 to set up the long drive.
The Bengals cashed two turnovers in the half for 10 points, their first game with more than one turnover since the Oct. 30 win in Seattle. It ended up being the Bengals defense's first four-turnover game of the year.
An interception of Yates on a sailing third-down pass was picked off Nelson at the Houston 25 set up Nugent's 47-yard field goal that gave the Bengals a 6-3 lead late in the first quarter. But in holding them to a field goal, the Texans showed just what kind of problem they gave the Bengals defensively.
Running back Bernard Scott lost four yards on first down when Watt penetrated through the left side and on the next play the Texans brought an all-out blitz and Dalton's pass was tipped at the line. Nugent was summoned when Dalton had to hurry a screen pass into the turf with Watt knocking him to the ground.
The Bengals' nagging mistakes surfaced again to kill another early drive much like what happened last week in Pittsburgh when a false start, delay-of-game, and blocked field goal blew up a red-zone drive on their first possession.
This time running Benson's longest run of the season, a 42-yarder off right tackle, put the Bengals inside the 1 when Manning grabbed Benson by the ankle at the last instant. But a false start on Bobbie Williams moved them back and they had to settle for Nugent's 22-yarder that tied it at 3. Joseph almost came up with a pick on third down when he jumped a route in the middle to wide receiver Andre Caldwell that Joseph dropped.
The Texans unleashed their third-ranked running game on their second drive and used to it to get Rackers's 46-yard field goal with 9:51 left in the first quarter. Houston gashed the Bengals with their two-headed backfield of Tate and Foster, ripping 59 yards on the ground on the first five snaps. The big play was Tate's 44-yard bolt untouched over the right side as right guard Mike Brisiel mowed the tackles to the ground and right tackle Eric Winston shielded outside linebacker Thomas Howard.
The Bengals defense dodged a huge play on the game's first snap when Yates went play-action from his own 15 and had wide receiver Jacoby Jones running past Adam Jones at the Bengals 45. But Adam appeared to get his hands in Jacoby's eyes at the last instant and the ball bounced off his hands.
The 44-yard run was the only time the Bengals really got hurt in the half on the run as the Texans as Foster and Tate split 85 yards on 16 carries.
PREGAME NOTES: The Bengals made a swtich on their offensive line before Sunday's game against the Texans at Paul Brown Stadium when they sat down right tackle Andre Smith with a sprained ankle and started Anthony Collins.
Also down for the Bengals were third-down running back Brian Leonard (knee) and left end Carlos Dunlap (hamstring), and cornerback Nate Clements was back in the starting lineup after missing last week's game in Pittsburgh.
It is Collins's 17th NFL start and his first since the final two games of last season, when the Bengals allowed no sacks in a win over San Diego and loss to Baltimore. Collins has played well coming off the bench and was the starter in the first five games of 2009 in the Bengals 4-1 start.
He gets a big assignment Sunday against a Houston 3-4 defense that has racked up 35 sacks. Most of the time Collins would be lined up over Texans rookie outside linebacker Brooks Reed, a second-round pick that has already set the club rookie record with six sacks.
But the Bengals didn't look ready to throw it around the yard. For the first time this season all three tight ends were active.
Also inactive were four rookies: Safety Robert Sands, linebacker Dontay Moch, guard Clint Boling, and wide receiver Ryan Whalen.
Also active was newly-signed defensive tackle Nick Hayden.
The Bengals introduced their starting defense and head coach Marvin Lewis sent out for his captains linebackers Rey Maualuga, Brandon Johnson, Dan Skuta and offensive linemen Kyle Cook and Bobbie Williams, indicating the emphasis is running the ball and stopping the run.