Despite dominating the Texans with 228 yards of offense on quarterback Brandon Allen's 73 percent passing in the first half, the Bengals were tied with Houston at 10-10.
The Bengals didn't allow prolific Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson a third-down conversion until the snap before the two-minute warning. That came after the Bengals just missed an interception on what turned out to be a costly snap.
Bengals left end Sam Hubbard smashed into Watson's arm as he was throwing and the ball fluttered in the air about ten yards down field. Cornerback William Jackson III and safety Jessie Bates III both went leaping for the ball, collided and the ball hit the ground.
Jackson was injured on the play, went to the locker room to be evaluated for a concussion and was later ruled out. Meanwhile, Watson wasted no time picking on Jackson's replacement, cornerback LeShaun Sims. Wide receiver Brandin Cooks got behind him with plenty of separation for a 25-yard touchdown catch that tied the game at 10-10 with 1:54 left in the half.
Then the Bengals couldn't keep the ball for a minute after a screen got blown up and wide receiver Tee Higgins couldn't hang on to a catch despite going up and down the field all half.
But the defense responded as it has for the past five weeks when it went back on the field with 57 seconds left to force the Texans' fourth punt of the half. Watson went deep on third and fourth down, but he couldn't find Cooks or anybody else to end a half Cooks went off for 115 yards on five catches.
The Bengals did a good job holding Watson in check and limited him to just 11 of 19 for 166 yards in the half while Allen didn't get outplayed. He was spot on with 16 of 22 passing for 188 yards and matched Watson's touchdown pass in the half.
The Bengals went up 7-0 on their first drive when Allen executed the short passing game to perfection, hitting all five of his passes for 65 of the 71 yards on the eight-play drive.
Allen went after the left side of the Texans soft zone, flipping screen passes of 28 and 15 yards to running backs Giovani Bernard and Samaje Perine, respectively, with center Trey Hopkins and left guard Xavier Su'a-Filo out in front on both plays.
Allen didn't need anybody near tight end Drew Sample when he found Sample for his first NFL touchdown catch on third-and-two from the Houston 8. Out of an empty back-field set, Allen found Sample in the left flat in man-to-man coverage and he walked in when Texans inside linebacker Tyrell Adams got picked off.
It couldn't have started any better. The Bengals sent Watson to the bench on his first two possessions on back-to-back three-and-outs. Cornerback Darius Phillips broke up Watson's first pass across the middle and on the second series on third down wide receiver Chad Hansen dropped a first down.
But the Bengals let them off the hook on their second offensive series. Facing a third-and-two and fourth-and two from the Houston 43, the Bengals went for it all after killing Houston softly.
Allen tried two deep balls to wide receiver A,J. Green working one-on-one against cornerback Keion Crossen down the right sideline. But on third down Allen was able to tip the underthrown ball and on fourth down it was badly overthrown.
At that point, the Texans had been outgained, 111-15, but they had the ball on their own 43 and Watson wasted no time with a 50-yard bomb on the first snap off a play-action bootleg to his right. Cooks ran by William Jackson, but as they have in recent weeks the Bengals defense responded again in the red zone.
On third down strong safety Vonn Bell blanketed tight end Kahale Warring, forcing Watson to throw it out of bounds and the Texans to take the chip-shot field goal to cut the Bengals lead to 7-3 with 1:22 left in the first quarter.
Then Allen's wide receivers betrayed him on the next series after he got a pair of first downs over the middle on third-and-seven (to Higgins) and on third-and-three (to wide receiver Alex Erickson ). But on second-and-five from the Texans 31, Higgins let a fast ball go through his hands and on the next snap wide Green went up to make a catch over the middle, but he couldn't put it away before Crossen knocked it away.
Then Austin Seibert missed his second field goal in as many weeks, a 49-yarder that went wide. So the Bengals had 153 yards, but just seven points. As usual, the defense was there for him. With 8:13 left in the first half, the Texans still didn't have 100 yards.
Check out some of the best images from the Bengals Week 16 matchup against the Houston Texans.
That's because they made plays like this after the Seibert miss. On third-and-five in the nickel package, rookie linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither tipped a Watson pass headed across the middle, making Houston 0-for-3 on third down.
But Green and Higgins wasted no time getting it back on the next series. Green stutter-stepped past Crossen down the right side for a 33-yarder for his longest catch of the season. Then on third-and-five Higgins ran the same route on the other sideline past cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III for 30 more yards.
They couldn't put it away in the red zone, though. Perine got only three yards on two runs, but on third down he had wide receiver Trenton Irwin lined up on a linebacker. Irwin, who moments before had made his first NFL catch in his second game, appeared ot get open but Allen made a rare inaccurate throw. Seibert also atoned with a 35-yard field goal that gave them a 10-3 lead with 3:30 left in the half.
The Bengals went in against a defense reeling in historic proportions. Next-to-last in both rushing and total defense, the Texans were giving up five yards per carry while allowing a passer rating of 108.9. With Allen completing 75 percent of his passes before he hurt his knee scrambling against the Cowboys in the fourth quarter two weeks ago, the Bengals were hoping to take advantage of a defense allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 69 percent of their passes.