INDIANAPOLIS - An undermanned defense and a historically bad offense combined to deliver one of the more complete losses in the Marvin Lewis Era at Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday when the Colts eased to a 27-0 win.
The Bengals missed their first 11 third-down snaps and their fall from first place in the AFC North was made official when they lost 17 yards on one third-quarter series before Kevin Huber launched his franchise-tying 11th punt. The trips into the AFC elite at New England and Indianapolis this month stand at 70-17 against the Bengals.
Like they did all day, the Colts played as if they were wearing Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton's helmet radio. They were all over a double pass from wide receiver Mohamed Sanu and when nothing was there, Sanu lost five yards getting chased out of bounds as the Green-Dalton Bengals put up their fewest yards ever (135) and couldn't avoid their first shutout since the last game of the 2009 season. That was also the last time they had fewer than 135 yards, when they could only manage 72 against the Jets.
But that game was played under much different circumstances than this one. Back then, the Bengals were tuning up for the playoffs the next week and rested their starters on a frigid wind chill factor of a night in the Meadowlands. On Sunday, on a day that was nice enough to open the Lucas roof, the playoffs weren't on anyone's mind. The NFL-leading Colts offense took advantage of the crushing time of possession (39:43) to take a 24-0 lead with 11:21 left in the game on running back Ahmad Bradshaw's 10-yard ramble after a pass, aided by a missed tackle from rookie cornerback Darqueze Dennard.
How bad was the offense? The only time they had fewer yards in a game they tried to win in this century was the notorious 94 in the Sept. 24, 2000 game in Baltimore, the 37-0 loss that turned out to be head coach Bruce Coslet's last game.
On their 12th attempt on third down with the Colts leading 24-0, Dalton hit Sanu with a leaping 32-yard catch and the Bengals reached the four-yard line but couldn't punch it in for the touchdown. Right tackle Andre Smith was called for a false start and on fourth-and-four Dalton's pass from the 4 to tight end Jermaine Gresham was sandwiched for an incompletion.
Dalton's career-low 40 passer rating (his rookie year against the 49ers) was in jeopardy. But he finished 18-for-38 for a 55.4 rating with 126 yards, his lowest ever in a loss where he played the entire game.
Colts quarterback Andrew Luck had 344 yards passing on 27 of 42 passing as the Colts racked up 506 yards. It's the second time in three weeks the Bengals have allowed more than 500 yards after not allowing any since Sept. 16, 2007.
Luck made it 17-0 with 9:47 left in the third quarter when he hit tight end Dwayne Allen for a 32-yard touchdown running past linebacker Vincent Rey toward the sideline and after Allen made the catch, Rey missed the tackle.
The Bengals defense pitched a brilliant first quarter when they slowed down the NFL's top-ranked offense to a mere Adam Vinatieri field goal. But in one of the worst offensive displays in recent memory, they whiffed on all eight third-down situations in the first half by gaining just 23 yards on 19 pass attempts, had just 27 total yards in the half, and lost the game of attrition as the Colts took a 10-0 first-half lead.
Just a week removed from rolling up 513 yards against the Panthers, the Bengals didn't get a first down until 45 seconds left in the half, when Colts linebacker Erik Walden was called on a personal foul for bumping an official, and they didn't get a first down of any kind until later than that. But the half fittingly ended on Dalton's first sack of the day, when defensive end Cory Redding stunted past right tackle Andre Smith. If Bengals left end Carlos Dunlap hadn't forced a fumble and recovered another, it would have been uglier than that.
By the time Bradshaw walked into the end zone from one yard out to make it 10-0, Indy had held the ball for 13.5 of the game's 20 minutes as the 3-1-1 Bengals tried to stay in first place in the AFC North. The Colts had the ball 20 minutes of the first half with the Bengals' longest pass an eight-yarder to Sanu and longest run a six-yarder by Bernard as Dalton finished the half eight of 19 passing.
Dunlap also added the lone sack of Luck in the first half as the Bengals kept Luck, the NFL's hottest quarterback, relatively in check. But they still gave up a monster half with Luck hitting 14 of 25 passes for 192 yards and the Colts running backs pounded for more than five yards per carry with Bradshaw taking it for 45 yards on eight carries and Trent Richardson 38 yards on seven carries. Both finished the game with more than five yards per carry.
Meanwhile, the starting linebacking corps continued to take shots after starting the game without middle linebacker Rey Maualuga and SAM linebacker Emmanuel Lamur. The other starter went out when Pro Bowl WILL backer Vontaze Burfict left early in the second quarter with a cervical strain after tackling Luck on a scramble at the Bengals 5 just before Vinatieri's field goal.
After Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton smoked him in the slot for 93 yards on six catches in the first half, cornerback Leon Hall left in the second quarter with a lower back strain. Hall could have prevented Vinatieri's field goal, but he dropped an interception thrown into his stomach at the Bengals 4.
Hilton got past Hall for a 46-yard catch and Hall compounded the mistake when he missed the tackle and Hilton put the ball on the Bengals 17. Then on the next snap, nobody was home when Bradshaw cut back from left to right and racked up 15 yards to set up his touchdown with 12:08 left in the half.
From there the defense gamely kept the Bengals in, not allowing first downs on five third-down snaps in the first half. Dunlap fell on Richardson's fumble at the Bengals 36 with 8:14 left in the first half to stop a killing scoring drive.
On the very next snap after Dunlap's recovery, rookie wide receiver James Wright couldn't get his block and Bernard was blown up by cornerback Vontae Davis on a screen to dislodge the ball. A second-down run to running back Jeremy Hill sweeping left fooled no one and lost three yards and on third down they tried a short pass to Bernard and this time safety Mike Adams blew up Bernard for the incompletion.
It was an offensive disaster. Without wide receiver A.J. Green, the Bengals couldn't get anyone open deep and the Colts sat on anything short as they shut down the run with eight in the box. It looked like they would get their first third-down conversion on the first snap after the two-minute warning in the first half when Dalton hit the newest Bengal a yard beyond the first-down marker on the sideline but wide receiver Greg Little dropped his first target since signing on Tuesday. It was one of the reasons Little got cut in Cleveland, where he had 28 drops in the previous three seasons.
The Colts came in with a 58-6 edge in the first quarter and have used it to lead the NFL in time of possession But the defense came up with a three-and-out on the first series, fueled by Dunlap's tip of Luck's throw on the game's first snap.
Yet the Bengals offense couldn't take advantage with an ugly three-and-out of their own to start the game. They lost five yards on first down on a screen to tight end Jermaine Gresham and on third-and-10 the Colts had an all-out blitz and all Dalton could do was throw it at Gresham's feet. Huber hit a beauty, but the Bengals couldn't down it at the 1 and it slithered into the end zone for Huber's first touchback of the season.
The Bengals defense again responded by getting a pretty good push from its front four to force a Luck incompletion to the sideline on second-and-10. Then on third-and-10 from the Colts 41, the Bengals showed blitz, backed out of it, and cornerback Adam Jones broke on the ball from behind to break up a first-down pass headed to wide receiver Reggie Wayne over the middle.
The Colts defense came in leading the NFL in third-down conversions and came into the game off a hellacious 25-for-28 success rate in the last three games, and stoned the Bengals on their first four third-down tries, holding them to just 12 snaps in the first quarter.
On the second series, Bernard probed both perimeters for seven yards on first and secondo down and on third-and-three Colts inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman got his hand on a pass to Gresham over the middle.
The Bengals defense then came up with a huge red-zone stop when Dunlap forced his ninth fumble in the last three seasons when his right hand ripped the ball from Bradshaw and Adam Jones recovered at the Bengals 11.
But the offensive miseries continued as they went to 0-3 on third down after staring at a third-and-nine. They tried three passes. The first one, to Gresham, went for just a yard. On second down Dalton made a play action bootleg fake, but couldn't connect with Sanu over the middle on a deep crossing route. Then Dalton went back to Sanu on the sideline, but was a half-yard shy when cornerback Greg Toler stopped him after the catch.
PREGAME NOTES: After he worked out on the field before Sunday's game, the hope is Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green (toe) is going to be ready for next week's game in Cincinnati against Baltimore. But his situation remains hazy since they're walking a fine line between giving him enough time to rest it and work to test it.
As expected, Green joined injured linebackers Rey Maualuga (hamstring) and Emmanuel Lamur (shoulder) on the Bengals' inactive list, along with defensive linemen Brandon Thompson and Will Clarke, offensive lineman Tanner Hawkinson, and cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris.
That meant the two newest Bengals, wide receiver Greg Little and middle linebacker Nico Johnson, were active. Jayson DiManche was expected to make his first NFL start replacing Lamur at SAM linebacker while Vincent Rey made his seventh career start in place of Maualuga in the middle.
The Bengals played in 53-degree sunny weather under the open roof of Lucas Oil Stadium.