Updated: 4:15 p.m.
INDIANAPOLIS - The Bengals again found themselves trying to roll the proverbial boulder up the hill by taking two steps back for every step forward.
Spoiling a brilliant defensive effort in the second half in which it forced Colts quarterback Peyton Manning's potent offense to punt four straight times, Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer threw his second interception of the game deep in Colts territory to set up Adam Vinatieri's 23-yard field goal that gave the Colts a 23-10 lead with 10:01 left Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The Bengals challenge overturned linebacker Tyjuan Hagler's 45-yard interception return for a touchdown when replays showed Palmer's rolling tackle ticked him at the Bengals 10. Facing a third-and-nine, Palmer got flushed out of the pocket from pressure up the middle and as he moved to his right, he tried to hit rookie tight Jermaine Gresham. But it was too far to his left and Hagler was sitting right there and went off on what was nearly the Colts' second pick-six touchdown of the day.
With the Colts laying in wait, Palmer threw his third interception of the game (the second time he's thrown three in a game this year) less than five minutes later when he led wide receiver Terrell Owens too far over the middle in a zone and strong safety Aaron Francisco picked it off.
After a Colts punt, the Bengals drove 73 yards capped by Palmer's 19-yard touchdown pass to Gresham with 2:35 remaining to trim the Colts lead to 23-17. Out of timeouts, the Bengals elected for the Mike Nugent onside kick and it worked as Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco recovered it at the Cincinnati 45. A 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty against the Colts tacked on 15 yards and the Bengals were in business at the Colts 40.
But on the next play Gresham fumbled as he was fighting for extra yardage after hauling in a six-yard reception and the Colts recovered at the Indianapolis 34 for the fifth Bengals turnover of the day. After not being able to secure a first down, the Colts were forced to punt and the Bengals took over at their 20 with 46 seconds left. Back-to-back sacks by Colts defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis (the Colts' first sacks of the day) sealed the win for Indianapolis.
On the onside kick Nugent hurt his knee and had to be carted off the field. He would not have returned to the game.
Before Hagler's interception, Palmer actually had more passing yards than Manning (187-185), but the Bengals turnovers (along with running back Cedric Benson's fumble) killed them.
The Bengals offense got into Indianapolis territory three straight times in that third quarter, but they could get no points and ended the third quarter still trailing, 20-10, as they did at the half.
It looked like the Bengals had seven when Ochocinco had cornerback Jacob Lacey beat down the middle on a bomb. He was wide open at the 25, but with Palmer getting heat from left end Mathis, Palmer had to hurry the throw and The Ocho's bid to make a diving catch slid off his fingertips.
The Ocho then came back and made a 25-yard dash and catch as the Bengals headed to a third-and-two from the Colts 45. But the Colts weren't fooled by Palmer's play-action rollout to the right and he was sacked for Cincinnati's third straight punt to open the half.
The Bengals struggled in short yardage all day. With 7:44 left in the game they had a fourth-and-inches from the Colts 46. But right guard Bobbie Williams false-started and they had to punt.
All you have to see to know about this excruciating season for the Bengals is the play with four minutes left in the first half.
Ochocinco made a leaping 34-yard touchdown catch in the end zone as two defenders converged on him. But it was wiped out by a penalty because either he or tight end Reggie Kelly failed to line up properly on the line of scrimmage, another play in a crazy-quilted half Ochocinco didn't get on the same page with Palmer until 1:06 left in the half.
But it was a big one. He came back to beat cornerback Jerraud Powers and made a tip-toe catch on the sidelines for a five-yard touchdown that cut the lead to 17-10 and marked the 65th touchdown of his career that put him into second place on the Bengals all-time list.
But if you saw the next drive, you also know a lot about the Bengals season. It took Manning just those last 1:06 and 10 plays to get a 47-yard field goal from Vinatieri as the first half ran out. It was the fifth time in the last six games the Bengals allowed a team to get the ball with less than three minutes left in the half or game and allowed points.
That last drive was aided by a pass interference call on linebacker Brandon Johnson working on tight end Jacob Tamme, but the Bengals did get rookie Carlos Dunlap's first NFL sack to force the field goal when he bull-rushed past right tackle Ryan Diem. Active for the Bengals was the little-used safety Rico Murray getting a workout at slot corner.
That Bengals touchdown drive was straight out of the Theatre of the Absurd. They couldn't run for a first down on second-and-one and third-and-one against the NFL's fourth-worst rushing defense and needed a 42-yard run from running back Brian Leonard on a fourth-and-one direct snap off a semi-fake punt from the Colts 34.
After a penalty the Bengals got a leaping 20-yard catch from Owens on third-and-nine to set up The Ocho's TD.
Palmer rescued the half with 10-of-13 passing for 99 yards, The Ocho getting four of them for 35 yards.
Disaster struck early and then came the implosion that blew apart the Bengals' plan to run the ball, control the clock, and limit Manning's possessions.
That will happen when you get down, 17-0, 41 seconds into the second quarter.
In his bid to get a pass to Ochicino on the sideline, Palmer underthrew the ball as he got hit and cornerback Kelvin Hayden returned it 26 yards for a touchdown and on the next snap Benson fumbled at his own 25 to give Manning the ball at the Bengals 25 with a 10-0 lead late in the first quarter.
It wasn't the first time Palmer and Ocho failed to hook up in the very ugly early stages of Sunday's game at Lucas Oil Stadium. On the first series, Palmer had him open on the sideline on third-and-nine and he threw it behind him. On the second possession, Palmer faced a second-and-long when Benson could only get a yard on first down, and he got pressure up the middle as he tried to get the ball to The Ocho.
Benson then lost a fumble for the third time this season when linebacker Kavell Conner got a hand on it and Manning wasted no time on seven plays and 2:53. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis unsuccessfully challenged a first-down spot and running back Javarris James pushed it in from the 3 to make it 17-0.
The Bengals did stare down Manning on his first foray into the red zone, but Vinatieri's 28-yard field goal gave him a 3-0 lead with 3:25 left in the first quarter.
The Colts came in scoring touchdowns on 65.5 percent of their red zone trips, but middle linebacker Dhani Jones knocked away a third-down pass for tight end Jacob Tamme to force the field goal. Just moments before Tamme beat Jones across the middle on third-and-nine for a 14-yard gain.
The Bengals came out running the ball in their heavy packages from last season. They had Anthony Collins as an extra tackle on a couple of plays and Benson bulled for 11 yards on his first three carries but on the fourth play wide receiver Andre Caldwell got dumped for a two-yard loss on a reverse.
The plan to run the ball and drain the clock went down the drain with the 17-0 deficit. The Bengals had to go no-huddle and they did get a leaping 19-yard catch from The Ocho over the middle and a 21-yard run-and-catch from Owens. But while Manning (15-of-26 for 148 in the first half) clicked in the red zone, the Bengals stalled in there when Palmer couldn't find anyone open on second down and had to throw it out of the end zone and on third-and-long he could get a three-yard checkdown pass to Leonard.
Nugent then hit a 27-yard field goal to make it 17-3 with 9:57 left in the first half.
PREGAME NOTES: Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, who threw only in limited fashion this week, looked to throw pretty easily when he and wide receiver Chad Ochocinco took the field for early warmups here at Lucas Oil Stadium before the game with the Colts and he was named the starter.
But starting safety Chris Crocker (thigh) was out after getting hurt Monday night, as well as defensive tackle Tank Johnson (knee), shelved for the second straight week. Dennis Roland got the start at right tackle after Andre Smith went to season-ending injured reserve on Saturday with a broken foot. Like he did Monday, Pat Sims started for Johnson while Chinedum Ndukwe started for Crocker.
Also out were third cornerback Morgan Trent (knee) and defensive lineman Jon Fanene (hamstring) as well as the weekly inactive list of running back Cedric Peerman, center Reggie Stephens, and wide receiver Jerome Simpson. Even before Smith got hurt the Bengals were looking to activate backup tackle Anthony Collins and he could be part of the brigade trying to fend off the feared Colts pass rush.
But the Colts were missing two of their starting linebackers, middle linebacker Gary Brackett and weakside linebacker Clint Session. Strongside linebacker Pat Angerer moved into the middle and was surrounded by backups Phillip Wheeler and Tyjuan Hagler. Also down for the Colts was another receiver, Blair White, joining Austin Collie on the inactive list, as well as running back Joseph Addai. That left Colts quarterback Peyton Manning with two of his top five receivers.
Also Sunday, tight end Chase Coffman made his first game day appearance in his two seasons.
Palmer, who injured his throwing shoulder Monday night, sat out the Wednesday and Thursday practices before he split the throws with the other quarterbacks Friday. Reports said he took a pain-killing shot for the injury that nearly took him out of the Steelers game. Sideline observers said that on Monday night he had enough pain when his shoulder was touched that he was about to be replaced before Palmer said he was OK and went back in without missing a snap.
The retractable roof was closed, making it the 71st indoor game in Bengals history. Sunny skies peeked through the windows with a game-time temperature predicted for 50 degrees. But winds could get as high as 20 miles per hour.
The Bengals took the field in their white jerseys and black pants, an ensemble in which they are 11-14. The Colts won the toss and took the ball. Bengals kicker Mike Nugent hit a touchback. Brandon Johnson started in place of Keith Rivers at WILL backer and Johnson made a third-down play on an incompletion to tight end Jacob Tamme. Safety Rico Murray lined up in the slot on the play.