Colts banish Bengals

INDIANAPOLIS - If you saw the Bengals' 27-0 loss here back on Oct. 19, you saw what transpired in the second half of Sunday's painful 26-10 loss to the Colts that made it the fourth straight year they've lost an AFC Wild Card Game.

After pulling to within 13-10 with 15 seconds left in the first half on Mike Nugent's franchise-long 57-yard field goal, the Bengals offense careened into the fourth quarter with four consecutive three-and-outs. By the time they got their second first down of the second half, there was four minutes left and they were out of it.

Without four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green and starting tight end Jermaine Gresham, the Colts did what they did in the shutout, when they forced eight three-and-outs to start the game.

They jammed the box with eight and nine men and played man-to-man to coverage. Just like back in October, the Bengals couldn't get any movement in the run game, even though they were more stubborn than two months ago, and the receivers, a corps decimated by injuries all year, again couldn't get open.

Two plays in the middle of the third quarter summed it up when Luck made a play that play-off teams make. After getting hardly any pressure on him all day despite playing against a re-tooled offensive line, the Bengals made Luck step up when he avoided a Reggie Nelson blitz and left end Carlos Dunlap had him by the ankles.

But Luck somehow muscled a 36-yard touchdown to rookie wide receiver Donte Moncrief running to the pylon past cornerback Darqueze Dennard and safety George Iloka for the killing touchdown that made it 20-10 with 7:48 left in the third quarter.

That was in contrast to the next snap, when the Bengals tried a flea flicker. Running back Jeremy Hill flipped it back to quarterback Andy Dalton and they had wide receiver Brandon Tate open briefly down the middle, but they couldn't connect as cornerback Greg Toler knocked it away.

The two plays crystalized the stark difference on a day the Bengals lost their sixth straight playoff game under head coach Marvin Lewis. Luck, who led the NFL with 40 touchdown passes, was immense, spreading the ball to a variety of weapons while Dalton's longest play was a 26-yard pass to transplanted running back Rex Burkhead playing wide receiver.

Luck rung up 366 yards on 31 of 44 passing for 104 passer rating and barely got touched. The defense wilted in the second half and the pass-happy Colts resorted to pounding the ball in deadly irony. The game's leading rusher turned out to be former Bengals draft pick Boom Herron and not Bengals rookie running back Jeremy Hill, the NFL's leading rusher since week nine.

The Colts got their final points on a 53-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri, set up by running back Cedric Peerman's holding call on a punt early in the fourth quarter.

Hill had just 47 yards on 13 carries and Herron had 56 yards on 12 carries. Hill had just eight yards on four carries after the first quarter as he battled an ankle injury in the second quarter. With no one getting open, Dalton hit 18 of 35 passes for just 155 yards, a 63.4 passer rating as his post-season miseries continued. For the third time in four playoff games, he didn't have a touchdown pass.

Hounded by injuries on both offense and defense, the Bengals got a lift from a turnover that translated into Nugent's 57-yarder that hit the upright and bounced through to cut the Colts' lead to 13-10 with 15 seconds left in the first half.

Bengals rookie cornerback Darqueze Dennard forced Herron to fumble at the Bengals 41 just after the two-minute warning and the Bengals had an excrutiating time trying to move the ball with two timeouts. Nugent, who shares the regular-season club record with Chris Bahr on a 55-yarder, came to the rescue to end a half that saw the Bengals lose middle linebacker Rey Maualuga in the second quarter when he re-injured his hamstring.

(The Bengals would also lose cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick with an ankle injury early in the fourth quarter during a game they rotated all five corners.)

The Colts defense played the Bengals like it did back in October. They dared the Bengals undermanned receivers to beat them while crowding the box and Dalton couldn't get anything deep on 11 of 16 passing for 91 yards in the first half  They only tried 14 runs because they were inconsistent on first and second down as Hill finished the half with 37 yards on nine carries and Giovani Bernard had six yards on three carries.

Bernard didn't carry the ball in the second half, but finished as the club's leading receiver with eight catches for 46 yards. The leading wide receiver was Mohamed Sanu with three catches for 31 yards.

Luck had plenty of time in the pocket (the NFL's most hit QB was sacked once), but the Bengals held them to basically two red-zone field goals in the first half to keep it 13-10.  Luck, throwing on 27 of 34 snaps in the first half, piled up 219 yards on an 85.3 passer rating. The Bengals did sack him once, shared by tackle Geno Atkins and end Margus Hunt, but the Bengals could barely dent the Colts' re-shuffled offensive line.

Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton shook loose for 47 yards on back-to-back catches. On third-and-11 (after a false start), Luck barely floated a sideline pass over the hand of leaping cornerback Adam Jones for a 17-yard completion. Then Hilton got a big mismatch on Maualuga underneath for 30 yards, but Kirkpatrick knocked away a touchdown pass headed to wide receiver Reggie Wayne to force a 28-yard field goal.

Then on the next series, Luck sashayed long enough in the pocket to hit a 45-yard completion to wide receiver Hakeem Nicks on a ball that hung up there and safety George Iloka didn't get his head turned around in time. But a blitz on third-and-four forced Luck to unload it quickly and Hilton dropped it to force another field goal, this one from 38 yards by Vinatieri to make it 13-7 with 8:37 left in the first half.

 The Bengals went into the backfield to find a new wide receiver and Rex Burkhead responded with a leaping 26-yard catch on third-and-four to set up the Bengals' tying touchdown with 1:28 left in the first quarter of a 7-7 game.

The Bengals came out as advertised and tried to establish the run. They converted their first third down on a plunge by Hill, but had to punt from the Colts 48.

They got a first down on their first snap, when Burkhead lined up at wide receiver and ran a reverse for 23 yards. Burkhead, who met and practiced with the wide receivers last week, also lined up as an outside receiver on third-and-seven and Dalton went to him on a four-yard slant.

But the Bengals came back to score on a 74-yard drive, featuring Burkhead's third-down catch and Hill's 18-yard ramble down the right sideline on third-and-one when he took a plunge  outside on first contact up the middle.. Burkhead finished with three catches for 34 yards.

Dalton looked sharp early, hitting Sanu on two quick hitters for 20 yards. But as the half went on, the Bengals had few chances downfield and on one shot Dalton overthrew Sanu on the sidelines.

The Bengals defense offered no resistance on the first drive of the game when the Colts rattled off a nine-play, 71-yard  touchdown in just under four minutes to take a 7-0 lead.

The worst-case scenario came at the hands, of course, of the former Bengal, Herron. Herron accounted for 58 yards in the drive, 32 rushing and 26 receiving. The Bengals got no pressure and Luck converted a third-and-seven from the Bengals 10 when he hit tight end Dwayne Allen between middle linebacker Rey Maualuga and WILL backer Vincent Rey. Herron then ran it in from two yards out. He bolted on left on a pitch for 27 yards when Maualuga couldn't get to the perimeter. Hilton had a touchdown pass in his pocket, but cornerback Terence Newman recovered to knock it out.

PRE-GAME NOTES: The Bengals weren't only missing four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green Sunday, but also starting tight end Jermaine Gresham (back) when they lined up against the Colts in a Wild Card Game at Lucas Oil Stadium.

The Bengals played their fourth straight first-round game without their top two receivers, underlining an injury-plagued season for the passing game. The Bengals never had the other starting wide receiver, Marvin Jones (ankle), off a 10-ten touchdown season, and their pass-catching tight end, Tyler Eifert, (elbow) was lost for the year in the first quarter of the opener.

Gresham, injured last Sunday night, had 62 catches and five touchdown passes, one in each of his last three games. Kevin Brock, who has five catches for 21 yards, got the start. Brandon Tate, replacing Green's 1,041 yards and six TDs, got the post-season start with 17 catches and 198 yards for a touchdown.

The Bengals' bid to run the ball took a shot without Gresham. Not only did it take another target away from quarterback Andy Dalton, but it hampered their ability to disguise the run and pass. Rookie H-back Ryan Hewitt had three catches for 34 yards back on Dec. 14 when Gresham didn't play in Cleveland and figured to play a prominent role for a team that has a combined six catches for 69 yards from their Nos. three and four receivers. The fourth receiver, Cobi Hamilton, dressed for his first NFL game.

Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson faced the mountainous challenge as reports said the Bills had sought permission to interview him for their head-coaching job. Jackson's main weapons are in his backfield, where Jeremy Hill has led the NFL in rushing since week nine and Giovani Bernard and running back Rex Burkhead can both line up in the slot.

When Jackson established Hill as the lead back, he also tweaked the running game for the Dec. 14 game in Cleveland and they've hung with pulling and trapping as opposed to straight zones.

Also inactive for the Bengals Sunday were defensive tackle Devon Still, cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris, offensive lineman Tanner Hawkinson, and quarterback A.J. McCarron. Green and wide receiver James Wright (knee) had already been ruled out.

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