The Bengals had no answer for Falcons wide receiver Roddy White, who had 201 yards on 11 catches. (AP photo)
ATLANTA - How it can all change so quickly and how it all did in Sunday's wild and terribly frustrating game for the Bengals.
After staring at a devastating blowout, the Bengals scored the first 22 points of the second half to erase a 24-3 halftime lead and take a 25-24 lead over the Falcons with 1:16 left in the third quarter on Atlanta native Adam Jones' 59-yard strip and fumble return before the stunned gathering at the Georgia Dome.
But after quarterback Carson Palmer misfired on what would have been a tying 40-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Terrell Owens with less than 10 minutes left, the Falcons finished off a 14-0 run of their own on running back Michael Turner's three-yard touchdown run to take a 39-25 lead with 4:33 left.
The Bengals came back to score a late touchdown on an eight-yard pass from Palmer to wide receiver Chad Ochocinco to cut it to 39-32 but the ensuing onside kick failed and Atlanta took over possession. The Bengals forced Atlanta to punt but returner Quan Cosby fair-caught the ball at the four-yard line with 28 seconds left. Out of timeouts, the Bengals couldn't muster anything down the field and the Falcons hung on for the 39-32 win.
Palmer, who finished 36-of-50 for 412 yards, had Owens running wide open one-on-one down the left sideline with 9:56 remaining and the Bengals trailing 32-25, but he threw it behind him and when Owens stretched back to make the catch, one foot was out of bounds.
On the next play, linebacker Stephen Nicholas was unblocked and forced a fumble of running back Cedric Benson in the backfield and the Falcons recovered at the Bengals 48. Ryan then took five minutes to grind it for the 39-25 lead with Turner (121 yards on 23 carries), finishing it off. The Falcons finished with 452 total yards while the Bengals had 469.
Jones' strip-and-score came one play after Palmer hit rookie wide receiver Jordan Shipley over the middle in the face of a heated third-and-13 blitz and Shipley outran everyone for a 64-yard touchdown that was halped by Owens' massive inside-the-five block on cornerback Brent Grimes.
The Bengals went for two following each score, but Ochocinco dropped one and was covered on the other. Shipley's touchdown came courtesy of another turnover from cornerback Leon Hall's fourth interception of the season.
Owens was immense in the comeback. He cut the lead to 24-13 with 3:39 left in the third quarter when he scored the 150th touchdown of his career and third in as many games when he stiff-armed safety Eric Coleman and ran in from 19 yards on a screen pass. That gave Owens, bidding for his third straight 100-yard game, seven catches for 81 yards. He finished with nine catches for 88 yards.
But how it can all change. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan then took the Falcons on their fourth touchdown drive of at least 76 yards. This one went for 76 on eight plays and when he hit wide receiver Roddy White for a two-point conversion, the Falcons had the lead again at 32-25 with 13:05 left. And Jones got hurt on the play with an unknown injury and had to be led off the field with a stinger and his return was questionable.
Talk about a tale of two halves. The Bengals needed this must-win but the first half turned into an exhibit of all that has ailed them in this disappointing season that was threatening to slide to 2-4 with a rout of shockng proportions. But in the fourth quarter they were stalking their biggest road comeback in team history.
It was Falcons 24, Bengals 3 at the half and the only thing missing was a standing 8 count.
After White beat Jones for a juggling, tumbling 43-yard touchdown catch to make it 17-3 early in the second quarter, the Bengals forgot their foot and shot off both legs. A holding call on tight end Daniel Coats wiped out Jones's 45-yard kick return, Ochocinco and Palmer miscommunicated on a route for an incompletion, and a 12 men in the huddle flag set up a third-and 13 on which the right side didn't block a soul and got Palmer drilled by four defenders for the ugliest sack of the season.
But it was an equal opportunity disaster. If the Bengals offensive line got blown up, so did the defensive line. The Falcons then embarked on their third touchdown drive of the game of at least 79 yards, an 11-play, 83-yard sojourn in which Ryan simply hit checkdown passes and got no resistance on a fourth-and-one conversion from running back Michael Turner.
Turner had the big play in that drive in a half the Falcons killed the Bengals on big plays. He ripped off a 36-yarder up the middle, bouncing off tackles from SAM linebacker Rey Maualuga, safety Chinedum Ndukwe, and a host of others.
It was miserable. White had six catches for 157 yards in the first half (he finished with 11 receptions for 211 yards) and Ryan had all day to dice them on 13-of-16 passing for 189 yards. Palmer got sacked just once, but got pounded by pressure most of the half in a feeble 11-of-20 passing effort that accounted for just 95 yards. The only guy who did anything was Benson, who had 57 yards on 12 carries despite having to fight out of his backfield on several runs.
And it was tough from the start. Just exactly what the Bengals didn't need to start in a sea of sound indoors.
Ryan competed his first four passes, the last one a three-yard touchdown to wide receiver Brian Finneran that capped the game's first 4:50, an easy eight-play drive that put Atlanta up, 7-0. And when the Bengals got a first down on the Falcons 3 with a 26-yard pass interference call on cornerback Brian Mitchell working against Shipley, the Bengals had to settle for Mike Nugent's 20-yard field goal that cut the lead to 7-3 with 22 seconds left in the first quarter and the Falcons made it 10-3 on Matt Bryant's 45-yard field goal early in the second quarter.
Benson got stoned on a carry to the left for a one-yard loss and he got two yards on a draw to set up third down from the 2. Palmer opted to go for Owens in the back of the end zone, but he was well covered and Palmer badly overthrew him.
On the game's first drive, Ryan hit White for his longest catch of the season (and the longest against the Bengals this season), a third-and-three play on the game's third play for 46 yards. With middle linebacker Dhani Jones blitzing, White ran a crossing route underneath and away from cornerback Leon Hall. With nickel corner Morgan Trent working on White, Ryan found him for 14 more yards later in the drive.
The Bengals tried to mix up on that pass rush and had rookie Carlos Dunlap at left end, Jon Fanene inside and Michael Johnson at right end on that first series.
The Bengals defense responded on its next series with a three-and-out, featuring some third down pressure on Ryan from rookie tackle Geno Atkins.
That gave the Bengals' good field position and following Benson' 11-yard run out of no-huddle, Palmer took his first long shot of the day. Owens was open in one-on-one coverage down the left side, but after he moved up in the pocket Palmer threw wide for an incompletion. But Benson was running hard and on the next play he sent safety Thomas DeCoud to the sidelines when they knocked heads. Benson got back up and converted the third and two cutting behind center Kyle Cook and the right side of the line.
The defensive mistakes continued. The Bengals were called for too many men on the field on the first snap after Nugent's field goal and safety Chris Crocker's missed tackle on Turner resulted in a 14-yard run that put the ball on the Bengals 30 and set up Bryant's field goal that made it 10-3 with 13:30 left in the first half.
But the Bengals pass offense had no answers when it got the ball back and pitched three straight incompletions. Palmer threw it high to the covered Owens on the sideline, Benson didn't get a handle on a pass over the middle, and Palmer got hit before he could get the third down pass off when the defensive line slanted through the left side.
The half ended, naturally, on Nugent's miss from 53 yards that was wide left.
PREGAME NOTES: Bengals cornerback Adam Jones came home to get his first NFL start in two years when Johnathan Joseph (ankle) was shelved for Sunday's game against the Falcons. Andre Smith got the start at right tackle and safety Tom Nelson (knee) was suited up in his first week off the physically unable to perform list.
Also down were defensive tackle Pat Sims (knee), running back Brian Leonard (thigh) and safety Roy Williams (knee). Sitting out of the lineup as they have most of the season were wide receiver Jerome Simpson, right tackle Anthony Collins and rookie center Reggie Stephens.
As expected, the Falcons deactivated cornerback Dunta Robinson (head, knee) after his $50,000 concussion, as well as their No. 1 pick, outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (knee).
With Anwan Odom suspended, Frostee Rucker got his sixth NFL start at right end for the Bengals but he's expected to be in a rotation with Michael Johnson and Jon Fanene, back after injuring his hamstring in the opener. With Sims down, rookie end Carlos Dunlap was dressed for the second time this season.
With so much focus on their matchup with the tackles here at the Georgia Dome, the Bengals offensive line got a lift Saturday night with a visit from four-time Pro Bowler Willie Anderson.
With Smith's first start of the season (and second of his career), Anderson, the best right tackle in Bengals history, supplies some nice karma. It's also a reminder of what exactly quarterback Carson Palmer is missing from 2005 and 2006 when he had two elite tackles in Anderson and left tackle Levi Jones. The Bengals are comfortable with current left tackle Andrew Whitworth and his joust Sunday with Falcons sack ace John Abraham, but this game is another effort in trying to replace Anderson. Smith and Dennis Roland have rotated for the last three games and had pretty much equal time two weeks ago against Tampa Bay.
Anderson lives in Atlanta and coaches his seventh-grade son Jair and head coach Marvin Lewis invited them and about five of Jair's teammates to have dinner Saturday night with the club and sit in on the offensive meeting.
"The kids loved it," Anderson said on the field before Sunday's game. "They ate with (Terrell Owens) and had their picture taken with Carson."
Anderson is on the Bengals sideline Sunday and could be headed back to Cincinnati to continue his tutoring of the young tackles. He came to town last month and worked with them for a Wednesday and Thursday practice.
The Bengals showed up in their white jerseys and black pants, an ensemble that has netted an 11-13 record. Lewis stuck to his usual routine of the Bengals being introduced as a team and when he sent out his captains they lost the toss and the Falcons took the ball.