Texans rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson's two busted plays broke the Bengals' heart Thursday night in a 13-9 loss before a baffled 52,942 at Paul Brown Stadium that left their shattered offense without a touchdown after two games for the first time in their history.
And it leaves their season at 0-2 after two excruciating home losses never thought imaginable and knowing a Bengals' team has never made the postseason starting at 0-2 with Aaron Rodgers looming next week in Green Bay. Watson broke a 49-yard scramble on third-and-15 for a touchdown at the end of the first half and his 11-yard scramble on third-and-16 capped a killing 6:24 drive with 1:58 left that turned a 53-yarder into a 42-yard field goal by rookie Ka'imi Fairbaim and the Bengals needed a touchdown to win and they haven't had one since Jan. 1.
The Bengals' red-zone miseries and offensive struggles reached epic proportions in the second half when the Bengals' 17-play drive that consumed the first 8:34 of the third quarter still didn't net their first touchdown as the franchise's longest stretch without a touchdown to open a season reached seven quarters.
Randy Bullock cut Houston's lead to 10-9 on a 30-yard field goal, but not before one final, tantalizing gut-breaker when quarterback Andy Dalton's 12-yard touchdown pass to tight end Tyler Eifert was ruled a penalty when Eifert stepped out of the end zone before he came back in to make the catch.
It was their sixth trip into the red zone this season and third and last of the night.
After rookie running back Joe Mixon took the bulk of the first-half carries with four for 15 yards, Jeremy Hill took over in that first drive and he converted a fourth-and-one with a flying leap to set up the non-pass to Eifert. Also big was a third-and-nine 14-yarder to wide receiver Alex Erickson.
On the next drive, they got a hellacious third-and-four conversion from Eifert for a 15-yard gain when he made a diving catch over the middle as he wrenched the ball from safety Marcus Gilchrist. But on the next set on third-and-four, Dalton and running back Giovani Bernard couldn't hook up on a quick throw that was defended by Gilchrist.
Dalton wasn't as off as he was Sunday, but he wasn't sharp either. As the clock moved to 11 minutes in the game, he missed open wide receiver Brandon LaFell on a low throw on third-and-three after Mixon did the bulk of the work, generating a first down on two carries and then carrying 270-pound linebacker Jadeveon Clowney for a ride after a catch to set up the third down.
They didn't get the big bounce back game from Dalton. He was better than Sunday's 22 passer rating, but Thursday's 76.4 wasn't good enough to beat Watson's 75.9. He was 20 of 35 for 224 yards with no TDs and picks. It was the first time since 2014 he went back-to-back games with no TD passes and just the third time in his career.
What more could do the Bengals defense do? Three times they stuffed the Texans on third-and-one, twice in the fourth quarter when they threw back rookie running D'Onta Foreman. Rookie right end Jordan Willis was terrific in his first NFL start and helped left end Carlos Dunlap and linebacker Vincent Rey stop the first one in the fourth quarter and then George Iloka led a swarm to stop the second one and the Bengals got the ball at their 47.
They got nothing but only a Dalton sack (his third of the night) when blitzing inside linebacker Bernardrick McKinney dumped him on third down.
The Bengals fell behind, 10-6, to a Texans team that has never lost a half-time lead in the four seasons of head coach Bill O'Brien.
For the first time in their history the Bengals went the first six straight quarters of the season without a touchdown despite two more trips into the red zone in the first half. That did result in their first points of the season on Randy Bullock field goals of 39 and 29 yards.
Two snaps after Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins rocked Watson for his second sack of the night, Watson spiced his first NFL start with a 49-yards scrambling touchdown with 50 seconds left in the half through a defense that had allowed nothing until then and stunning a team that four days before had allowed 14 points in the last two minutes of the half.
Watson took a shot-gun snap, saw nothing open on third-and-15, and took off up the middle. He got a good block on cornerback Dre Kirkpatirck from fullback Jay Prosch, ziggad on cornerback Darqueze Dennard and zagged the rest of the way.
The Bengals had six plays of at least 20 yards in the half and no TDs to compound the frustration. To their credit after Watson shocked them, they started at their own 25 and Dalton (nine of 14 for 138 yards for a 96.7 rating in the half), found tEifert down the middle for 22 yards and then scrambled to find wide receiver Erickson for 37 to put to put the ball at the Texans 11 with 16 seconds left.
But Dalton had to throw it away twice, the last time with wide receiver A.J. Green getting double covered and they had to call on Bullock.
Trailing, 3-0, courtesy of a fumble on rookie wide receiver John Ross' first NFL touch, Dalton and Green made the longest play of the season when Dalton fired up a 50-yarder down the middle on first down as Green hung in the air between cornerback Johnathan Joseph and safety Marcus Gilchrist to haul it in to put the Bengals in the red zone at the Houston 14.
But they went backward. Left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi whiffed on a zone read and running back Giovani Bernard lost five yards. Then on third down Dalton had a shot-gun snap in his hands for about a second before blitzing linebacker Benardrick McKinney put him on his back for the Texans' second sack of the night after they had none in the opener.
Bullock then got the first points in the season's 78th minute on his 39-yard field goal with 13 minutes left in the first half.
But the next two series got nothing and on a three-and-out Dalton missed wide-open wide receiver Brandon LaFell down the middle.
Ross' first NFL touch went from ecstacy to agony as swept left off a reverse for 12 yards. But cornerback Kareem Jackson put his helmet on the ball and it popped into the hands of linebacker Jadeveon Clowney and he took it 49 yards with only a Dalton tackle coming between the Texans and a touchdown late in the first quarter. It was one of only three snaps for Ross in the half, according to profootballfocus..com.
It was the sixth turnover of the season for the Bengals in five quarters to cap a brutal first quarter for the offense that included three more flags and another sack.
Watson got his first NFL start on his 22nd birthday and, as expected, O'Brien played it closer to the vest than a sweater. After two three-and-outs to open the game, Foreman got a first down on a sweep left but defensive lineman Chris Smith logged his first sack as a Bengal when lined up at tackle and got freed up when he crossed with left end Carlos Dunlap, one of three sacks of Watson in the half and the game.
The Texans offensive line, reeling from allowing 10 sacks in the opener, should have given up another one after Ross' gaffe, but Watson amazingly wriggled away from Dunlap on third down and nearly completed a pass as he was spinning backwards. But the series did result in Fairbaim's 26-yard field goal with 1:28 left in the quarter for Houston's 3-0 lead.
It was another miserable start for the offense. The Bengals were called for three straight flags and gave up a sack on their first series and one was declined when Jackson blitzed off the edge on third down and got the sack while right tackle Jake Fisher got called for hands to defensive lineman J.J. Watt's face.
Right guard T.J. Johnson, making his second NFL start, was called an illegal block on a screen to Green on the second snap and before Kevin Huber launched a 58-yard punt that rolled out of bounds at the Houston 3, safety Josh Shaw was called for a false start.
Then on the second series they couldn't get a first down on first-and-five. Watt harassed Dalton to throw it out of bounds, Mixon got two on a sweep and on third-and-three Texans linebacker Zach Cunningham stoned running back Giovani Bernard in space a yard short when Dalton threw quickly out of a no-back set with five receivers.
Mixon had the most carries in the half for the Bengals with just four for 15 yards as they could scrounge just 36 yards on 10 carries while the Texas had 106 yards on 18 carries, but 49 on the Watson play. He was just eight of 13 passing for 73 yards. For the game the Bengals had just 82 yards on 24 carries with Mixon's 36 yards on nine carries leading the way.
PRE-GAME HITS: Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis dropped his first big surprise in the wake of Sunday's 20-0 Opening Day loss to the Ravens and sat down slot receiver Tyler Boyd for the first time in his career when he handed in his inactives for Thursday night's game against the Texans at Paul Brown Stadium.
That coincides with No. 1 pick John Ross' NFL debut at wide receiver after spraining his knee two weeks ago in the pre-season finale. Also inactive was right guard Trey Hopkins (knee), right end Michael Johnson (concussion), tight end C.J Uzomah (ankle), as well as cornerback KeiVarae Russell, guard Alex Redmond, and wide receiver Josh Malone.
Expected to start was safety Shawn Williams, who lived up to his rep as one of the toughest guys on the team when he ended up missing just one regular-season game after dislocating his elbow Aug. 19,
It is the sitting of Boyd that is the stunner. He led all NFL rookies with third-down receptions last season and his 54 catches marked the most productive year for a Bengals rookie wide receiver not named A.J. Green in the last 35 years.
But they're trying to get Ross on the field, although it's doubtful he can play a huge amount of snaps because of the practice time he's missed since the draft. Ross missed all of the spring (shoulder) and didn't play until the third pre-season game. Then he got hurt on the first drive of the pre-season finale and didn't return to full practice until this week's two truncated workouts in a short week.
But no doubt they've prepared specific packages for Ross using his record 40-yard dash speed, such as sweeps and reverses. Like last game they'll use a variety of receivers in the slot, such as Green, Brandon LaFell, Alex Erickson, and Ross probably also gets a few snaps in there.
Lewis offered a little Houston flavor with his game captains when he gave the nod to wide receiver Brandon LaFell and safety George Iloka. Also out at the 50 was running back Giovani Bernard, defensive end Carlos Dunlap and safety Derron Smith for the specialists.
Cincinnati Bengals host Houston Texans in week 2 of the regular season at Paul Brown Stadium 9/14/2017