In one of the greatest meltdowns in their history Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, the Bengals allowed 28 unanswered points in a nightmarish 14:07 stretch during Buffalo's 35-0 second half that saw a 31-14 halftime lead evaporate into a numbing 49-31 loss.
Former Bengals quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick returned looking like Unitas and Montana when his 32-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Steve Johnson running wide open in the middle of the field marked his fourth touchdown pass of the day for 316 yards and there was still 11:36 left in the game to make it 42-31.
With three-fourths of the Bengals starting secondary knocked out of the game with injures in the first half, Fitzpatrick sifted the Bengals for 21-of-34 passing as they gave up the most points ever under defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and their most points since a 51-45 loss on Cleveland on Sept. 16, 2007.
The Bengals had no answer for Steve Johnson, who had 137 yards on eight catches, and a crowd of 55,654 emptied out as quickly as the lead went down the drain.
Quarterback Michael Johnson's desperate bid to cut into the lead ended with 5:30 left in the game when new kicker Aaron Pettrey's 43-yard field goal attempt hooked wide. Palmer had kept it alive with fourth-down completions to wide receivers Terrell Owens and and Jordan Shipley, but he ended the day throwing two more interceptions, the first two by the Buffalo secondary this season and as finished just 19-of-34 for 230 yards.
But it was Palmer's first interception that was the most lethal.
Leading 31-28 with three minutes left in the third quarter, Palmer got picked off in the end zone on third down from the Buffalo 5 when safety George Wilson came up with the Buffalo secondary's first interception of the season when he cut in front of Owens in the middle of the end zone and ran it to the Bengals 49, where Palmer came from across the field to push Wilson out of bounds.
Fitzpatrick then made it hurt when he floated an 11-yard touchdown pass to Johnson in the left corner of the end zone to give the Bills the lead, 35-31, in the first minute of the fourth quarter.
Making it even more crushing was that Owens' juggling touchdown catch just moments before the end-zone pick was wiped away by a hold on left tackle Andrew Whitworth when he got bull-rushed by Kyle Williams.
Fitzpatrick took dead aim on the deficit early in the second half and Buffalo cut the lead to 31-28 with 9:54 left in the third quarter when defensive end Marcus Stroud forced running back Clint Boling's fifth fumble of the season that turned into Bills cornerback Drayton Florence's 27-yard fumble return for a touchdown.
It was the fifth TD return the Bengals have allowed this season.
On the first series of the second half, Fitzpatrick cut it to 31-21 when he found Johnson splitting cornerback Leon Hall and safety Chinedum Ndukwe out of a bunch formation for a 28-yard touchdown pass through the undermanned Bengals secondary.
It was the T.O. and Ocho Show in the first 15:50 of the game as the Bengals took a 14-7 lead over the Bills. Then cornerback Johnathan Joseph took over with two interceptions of Fitzpatrick, the last a 21-yard return for a touchdown that gave Cincinnati a 28-7 lead with 10:10 left in the second quarter before it turned into a 31-14 halftime lead.
Benson ended up with 124 yards on 25 carries, Cincinnati's first loss when Benson carries at least 25 times.
All karma seemed to point to the Bengals busting their six-game losing streak even when they allowed points in the final 1:17 of the half for the fifth straight game. These came courtesy of Fitzpatrick's 28-yard touchdown pass to rookie wide receiver Donald Jones on a slant he ran through and past the secondary to cut the Bengals lead to 28-14, the first time the Bengals had held a lead this month and since the third quarter of the Oct. 31 game against Miami.
But the Bengals finally had an answer to a late score, thanks, in part, to Buffalo kicker Rian Lindell drilling the ensuing kickoff out of bounds to give them the ball at their own 40. Palmer then hit Shipley over the middle and he turned it up the outside for a 37-yard gain that put the ball on the Buffalo 5 with 20 seconds left.
A pass interference call on Florence working on Owens in the left corner of the end zone gave the Bengals three shots to get in from the 1, but after another pass interference call (linebacker Paul Posluszny on tight end Jermaine Gresham), running back Bernard Scott got stoned twice. It looked like the Bengals had run out of time, but the officials put a second back on the clock and Pettrey hit his first NFL field goal from 19 yards for the 31-14 lead.
Benson put on a strong cameo with T.O. and Ocho for 82 yards on 14 carries, but an eye injury iced him after he scored the touchdown that made it 21-7. He had his longest run of the year on a 26-yard bolt down the outside that came moments after Joseph's first interception at the Bills 34. Benson later walked in for a touchdown from the 1 on third down for the 21-7 lead with 10:59 left in the half.
Then Fitzpatrick, the NFL's second-leading passer on third down, made a huge mistake on third-and-long. Going for Johnson on the outside, Joseph stepped in front of him and took about six strides all alone into the end zone. It was only Fitzpatrick's second interception on third down this season.
But it was a costly run to the lead. The Bengals lost both starting safeties in the first 25 minutes and it looked like they may have lost Chris Crocker for the year when he twisted his right knee awkwardly while making a tackle and he had to be carted off the field. Earlier, Roy Williams was lost for the day with a concussion as Ndukwe, Nelson and Rico Murray got battlefield promotions.
After his TD, Joseph went to the sidelines with an ankle injury and he was out for the game. The secondary kept taking hits. Cornerback Brandon Ghee, battling a hamstring problem, left early in the second half and was questionable to return.
Palmer took a page out of Fitzpatrick's playbook when his nine-yard scramble converted one of Cincinnati's four third downs in an opening drive that needed wide receiver Chad Ochocinco's two-yard touchdown catch on third-and-two that gave the Bengals a 7-0 lead.
Palmer also hit the The Ocho on a nine-yard sideline route to convert the first third down of the game as the Bengals embarked on a 13-play drive that featured Benson's 32 yards on seven carries and Palmer's 26 yards passing on three of five throws.
Then working out of the no-huddle, Palmer followed up Benson's 16-yard run up the middle with a 48-yard to bomb to Owens racing down the right sideline past cornerback Leodis McKelvin to put the ball at the Bills 2. After Benson lost two yards up the middle, Palmer worked a play-action pass for a four-yard touchdown pass to Owens cutting across the goal post for a 14-7 lead 50 seconds into the second quarter.
It was Owens' 155th career touchdown, passing Randy Moss into third on the all-time list, and he enjoyed yammering at his old Bills teammates the whole way. That put Palmer at 6-of-8 passing for 83 yards and two TDs.
But as they have all year, the Bengals couldn't stand prosperity after that first score. They missed a chance to put the hammer down on the Bills' first series when middle linebacker Dhani Jones picked off Fitzpatrick at the Buffalo 21. But right end Michael Johnson was called for a head-to-head hit on Fitzpatrick. Then, on third-and-17, rookie left end Carlos Dunlap was called for illegal hands for another automatic first down.
Steve Johnson then burned the Bengals for a 36-yard catch down the middle of the field off missed tackles by Crocker and WILL linebacker Brandon Johnson. Bills running back Fred Jackson then took care of the final 34 yards with four hard runs that were tough on Roy Williams. Wide receiver Lee Evans blocked him on a 16-yard run, and two snaps later, an eight-yard run, Williams hurt his neck and was out for the game.
Jackson then tied the game at 7 on a seven-yard run late in the first quarter, capping a 12-play drive.
Palmer finished the first half with a 148.1 rating on 10-of-13 passing for 132 yards, 52 to Owens and 11 to the Ocho. Fitzpatrick was saddled with a 57.1 rating on 11 of 21 for 177 yards. PREGAME NOTES: With Tank Johnson (knee) and Frostee Rucker (knee) out for Sunday's game against the Bills at Paul Brown Stadium, the Begals started Pat Sims at tackle and Michael Johnson at right end on their defensive front for the second straight game.
Wide receiver Jerome Simpson was inactive for the eighth time in 10 games. Also down again were center Reggie Stephens and running back Clark Harris, as were two newcomers, defensive end Victor Adeyanju and tackle Kirk Chambers.
Bills starting right tackle Cordaro Howard was out. As expected, running back C.J. Spiller and linebacker Shawne Merriman were inactive. Mansfield Wrotto, a third-year journeyman who signed with the Bills last month, made his his fourth start at right tackle. Leodis McKelvin got the start at left corner in place of Terrence McGee. The Bills made two first-round draft picks inactive because of a coach's decision, linebacker Aaron Maybin and defensive end John McCargo.
The Bengals appeared on the field Sunday in 65-degree weather looking to raise their record to 10-2 in their orange jerseys. Head coach Marvin Lewis chose to announce his defense after director of player relations Eric Ball was honored by the NFL. The Bengals won the toss and took the ball. Instead of Bernard Scott returning the kick, the Bengals sent out Andre Caldwell and Quan Cosby, and Caldwell churned out a 35-yard return.