Updated: 10 p.m.
KANSAS CITY - Say what you want about the beleaguered Bengals defense.
But it was the offense that went 24 minutes without a first down in the guts of Sunday's game here at Arrowhead Stadium before 73,846 in a 27-20 loss that put the Bengals on the brink of playoff elimination at 1-4 and the first four-game losing streak under head coach Marvin Lewis.
The straits are as dire as the "only five 1-4 teams since 1990 have made the playoffs" stat.
The Bengals valiantly tried to come back in the final period, but a 27-10 deficit midway through the quarter proved too much to overcome. After a 30-yard touchdown reception by T.J. Houshmandzadeh with 5:09 remaining cut the Chiefs lead to 27-17, the teams traded possessions before the Bengals got the ball back on their own 14 with 1:53 remaining.
Cincinnati drove to the Kansas City 18 where Lewis elected to go for a field goal on third-and-10 to cut it to a one-score game at 27-20. Shayne Graham knocked home the 36-yarder but the ensuing onside kick was not even close as it only went eight yards and was recovered by Kansas City to end it.
"What I told our football team after the game is that even though we lost the game we made improvement playing as a team," Lewis said. "In the second half we played like a team and not a bunch of individuals. In the first half there was a lot of error. It got us in a hard way and it gave them an opportunity. Obviously we have to get better on third down on both sides of the ball."
The Bengals converted just one of their 11 third-down opportunities, and are now a dismal 1-for-18 over the last two games. "I need to play better on third down," Palmer said. "I'm not making enough plays. I have to watch tape and see what I have to do to get better."
In response to Lewis's assertion that the team improved over the course of the game, defensive end Justin Smith said, "In this situation you have to look for the positives. As players we know we've got a lot of work to do. We have to go back to work Monday, hold everybody accountable, get ready for those Jets and we need a 'W.' "
But his teammates know that 1-4 is 1-4 no matter how the second half went.
"That's just one of those things where you can only beat a guy so many times when he's down and right now we're down. We all know what's going on here, we know," Houshmadzadeh said. "We're not good right now, that's the bottom line. You can sugar coat it any way you want, but as of right now, I mean I think we're good. I say it every week that we are losing to teams that aren't as good as we are, but eventually I'm going to have to quit saying that and we are going to have to start beating them. As of now we are not so it is what it is."
O-line struggles early
Although the young Bengals tackles seemed to hold up, playing without injured right tackle Willie Anderson and benched left tackle Levi Jones reflected the team's problems on its offensive line. It was summed up on the failure to get running back Kenny Watson the length of two footballs on fourth down from the Bengals 36 with 8:10 left in the third quarter.
The desperation of the Bengals may have been underlined when they inexplicably challenged the spot, losing a timeout.
Quarterback Carson Palmer said he begged Lewis to go for it. "We let our defense down and we let our team down," Palmer said.
Bengals offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth said the Bengals caught a bad break on the play because the Chiefs blitzed to his side and that a big play was open on the right side, but Donnie Edwards came off the edge and after falling was able to grab Watson by the ankle before he could stretch it out.
Still, the defense kept grinding it. Rookie safety Chinedum Ndukwe's first NFL sack took the Chiefs out of field-goal range on that drive, and linebacker Dhani Jones forced wide receiver Jeff Webb's fumble at the Bengals 48 that was recovered by defensive end Frostee Rucker near the end of the third quarter.
The Bengals could only go 37 yards in eight plays and had to settle for a 33-yard field goal by Graham with 13:54 left in the game that made it 20-10.
The Chiefs stiffened to force the field goal, allowing Houshmandzadeh just one yard on a screen and Palmer threw a quick incomplete slant to double-covered wide receiver Chad Johnson, who finshed with eight catches for 83 yards on the day.
The third-down skein stretched to 0-for-10 with 11:27 left in the game when the Bengals appeared to win a challenge after Palmer hooked up with wide receiver Antonio Chatman on a leaping catch on the sideline. Chatman appeared to get both feet down, but the play was upheld.
And the defense that gave the offense so many chances in the second half by holding running back Larry Johnson to eight yards on four carries in the third quarter, finally wilted.
Seconds after picking up a pass interference penalty on third down against Bengals free safety Madieu Williams, tight end Tony Gonzalez completed his first 100-yard day against Cincinnati (nine for 102) running past Williams on a 26-yard touchdown pass that made it 27-10 with 8:03 left in the game.
Palmer quickly got it back three minutes later on his second touchdown pass of the day to Houshmandzadeh, the 30-yarder with 5:03 left in the game.
The Bengals converted their first third-down of the game with 3:30 left, when Houshmandzadeh caught a 20-yarder over the middle on third-and-five. Houshmandzadeh finished with 145 yards on eight receptions and two scores.
But on the next play, Palmer overthrew Chad Johnson at the Kansas City 20 and it turned into safety Bernard Pollard's first career interception. Palmer passed for 320 yards on the game, but he misfired on 17 of his 43 attempts, including two picks.
The Bengals won last year's opener here, 23-10, and this was supposed to be a worse Kansas City team.
But when Larry Johnson scored unmolested on an eight-yard sweep left for Kansas City's first rushing touchdown of the season with 5:38 left in the first half, Kansas City celebrated its first first-half lead at any point of this season and took a 20-7 lead at the half.
Johnson, mired in muck all year, broke through with 119 yards on 31 carries and could have had a 35-yard touchdown run if cornerback Deltha O'Neal hadn't stripped him on the one-yard-line to force a touchback in the second quarter.
The offense didn't give its beleaguered defense any help. The Bengals set up Johnson's touchdown when cornerback Patrick Surtain got his first interception of the season when he anticipated Palmer's sideline throw to Chad Johnson at the Bengals 44.
And the Bengals couldn't protect Palmer with Chiefs defensive end Jared Allen racking up 2.5 sacks and a Palmer fumble in the game's first 17 minutes. So the Bengals benched Jones, moved left guard Whitworth to left tackle and brought in Scott Kooistra to play left guard.
Jones said after the game that it was the worst game he has ever played and first time he's ever been benched.
Palmer had just 88 yards on 6-of-10 passing against all sorts of pressure when he lined up to start the two-minute drill at the end of the first half from his own 15 and all he had time to do was get shoved to the ground by Allen and defensive tackle Alfonso Boone coming up the middle on two incomplete passes before opting to get it out of there with a running call to Watson that got only six yards.
The Chiefs then wheeled down the field for Dave Rayner's 20-yard field goal on the last play of the half in an easy 1:27, 10-play drive with Chiefs quarterback Damon Huard looking like he invented the position in just his 20th NFL start. He finished 25-of-35 passing for 264 yards and two touchdowns on the day.
It's a tough day when Palmer makes his 50th NFL start and his passer rating is 79.6, which is nearly 35 points off Huard, making his 20th start in posting a 112.1 rating.
Chiefs take control early
The Bengals did exactly what they didn't want to do when they let the Chiefs offense get into the game right away by picking up two 15-yard personal fouls in the first thee minutes and then let Gonzalez dominate the red zone as the Chiefs took a 10-7 lead after the first quarter.
After the Bengals let the Chiefs have good field position at the Bengals 44 on a line drive punt and poor coverage, Gonzalez caught three balls for 21 yards working against linebackers and safeties once they got inside the 20. He caught the last one on a four-yard route to the corner that gave him the NFL record for career touchdowns by a tight end with 63.
Houshmandzadeh caught the Bengals' longest pass of the season on Cincinnati's fourth snap of the game, a 42-yarder that them a 7-3 lead with 7:39 left in the first quarter.
Houshmandzadeh caught the ball at the 25, cut outside and made linebacker Donnie Edwards miss before Chad Johnson came back to the 5 and made the final block.
After they let rookie wide receiver Dwayne Bowe catch a 14-yard pass on third-and-six in the first drive, the Bengals held. A near sack by blitzing safety Dexter Jackson and a tipped pass by defensive tackle Domata Peko forced Raynor's field goal to make it 3-0 Kansas City with 5:21 in the game for the Chiefs' first first-quarter points of the season.
Smith had his first sack of the season in the drive as he blew past Chiefs left tackle Damion McIntosh. The Bengals also came out in a new defensive alignment with left end Robert Geathers moving to strong-side backer and Bryan Robinson playing left end.
But the story of the game was the Bengals offensive line unable to block the Chiefs, with the three sacks and constant pressure putting them in bad spots. Still, with the score 17-7, Watson got stuffed on the right side on third-and-one for a two-yard loss when Edwards cut him down.
Watson made his second straight start in place of usual starter Rudi Johnson, who carried just four times for eight yards. "There were no setbacks," Johnson said. "I didn't feel like myself, so we did the smart thing (sticking with Watson)."
Then facing a third-and-two to open the second half, Palmer got sacked for the fourth time by tackle Ron Edwards on third down as he tried to run out of the pocket. It marked Cincinnati's third straight three-and-out.
Madieu Williams got a 15-yard facemask penalty on the opening kickoff and cornerback Blue Adams, working out of the nickel package, was called for hitting Huard in the head on a blitz.
The Bengals kept up heavy pressure on Huard, getting a sack by linebacker Landon Johnson on the first snap of the second series, but the Bengals couldn't take advantage. Palmer found Chad Johnson open for a first down on second-and-four, but threw it short to the sideline. Then Allen sacked Palmer on the next play, forcing the poor punt and coverage that put the ball at the Bengals 44 and set up Gonzalez's touchdown.
Bengals tight end Reggie Kelly sprained his left ankle with about nine minutes left in the third quarter and he returned. Jackson left briefly in the second quarter for an I.V.
"We have to win out," Palmer said. "We're a playoff team, we feel. We have still have a possibility to go to the playoffs. I still think that out of 32 teams, there aren't many that can say that."
PREGAME NOTES: Rudi Johnson dressed but Kenny Watson got his second straight start at running back. After Watson had two carries for 24 yards, one a 19-yarder on the first series, Johnson checked into the game.
Johnson worked for the first time in 19 days Friday after injuring his hamstring in the Sept. 23 loss to Seattle and it looks like he'll be used in at least spot duty as the Bengals try to revive the NFL's 26th-ranked rushing game.
The Bengals' battered linebackers were out again: middle linebackers Ahmad Brooks and Caleb Miller were inactive as was strong-side backer Rashad Jeanty. Dhani Jones got the start for Jeanty and Anthony Schlegel went in the middle with six Bengals games among them.
Also down for Sunday were defensive back Ethan Kilmer, wide receiver Tab Perry, and defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene. Right tackle Willie Anderson made the list for the first time since the final game of the 1999 season as he nurses injuries to his knee and foot.
Missing Fanene (knee) isn't helpful either given the Bengals figure to counter their problems at backer with linemen. If the Bengals do what they did the last time they played (Oct. 1 vs. New England), defensive end Robert Geathers is going to play a lot of linebacker and that would mean more time for Bryan Robinson at defensive end.
Another issue is defensive end Frostee Rucker's hand injury and how much he'll be able to play effectively. He looked to be wearing a cast on the right hand during warmups.
The Bengals talked about getting out of the box early during the week. The Chiefs haven't scored a point in the first quarter this season and haven't had a lead in the first half, and in one of the tougher home fields in the NFL the Bengals don't want to give Kansas City even a sliver of hope.
The Bengals took the field in their all white uniforms, a combination that has a 5-4 record. After the offensive starters were announced en masse, captains Carson Palmer and John Thornton went to midfield with game captains T.J. Houshmandzadeh for the offense, Justin Smith for the defense. and safety Herana-Daze Jones for special teams.
The Chiefs won the toss and took the ball.