In the biggest game of the season, Bengals middle linebacker Rey Maualuga came up with his biggest hits with two forced fumbles that should have won Sunday's game against the Texans in the 20-19 loss at Paul Brown Stadium.
His first one bailed the Bengals defense out of a first-and-goal-from-the-1-yard-line hole early in the second quarter when he drilled running back Ben Tate in the backfield, popped the ball from him, and then won what he called a "tug-of-war" under one of the longest piles ever to recover the fumble.
Then early in the fourth quarter with the Bengals leading 19-10, Maualuga drilled running back Arian Foster on a screen pass six yards deep and forced a fumble gobbled up by defensive tackle Geno Atkins at the Texans 14. But Atkins fumbled after a nine-yard run and the Bengals lost the ball at the 2 and then ended up allowing Houston to go 83 yards and nearly seven minutes for a field goal.
"I didn't want to make the hit and not come up with the fumble," Maualuga said of that first ball. "As soon as I made the hit, the ball came down and I knew if I grabbed it, it would have made the play extra special."
Maualuga had some help from his friend, safety Taylor Mays, a regular presence on goal-line situations.
"I guess 44 (Tate) was trying to take it out of my hand and I had Taylor trying to pull it out of my hands," Maualuga said. "That whole time it's like a tug-of-war. The energy is out. I'm down there for like two minutes. That's all we were doing. I didn't have possession. No one had possession until the last 10 seconds. The ref said, 'Cincinnati's ball,' and I'm trying to tell the guy to let go. Trying to tell Taylor to get off me."
The Bengals should have won this game so many different ways. The numbers said so. Thanks to Maualuga, the defense had its first four-turnover game of the season, which translated into a plus-two turnover differential. Under head coach Marvin Lewis the Bengals win 80 percent of their games when they do that and across the league since 2000 teams win 84 percent when they go two-plus.
But as safety Chris Crocker said, rookie quarterback T.J. Yates beat the Bengals with his legs as much as his arms when he rushed five times for 36 yards, the last one a killing 17-yarder on the last drive.
"We knew he was a lot better runner than the other two quarterbacks," Maualuga said of the two sidelined Matts, Schaub and Leinart. "We knew there would be a time when they could call the right play at the right time. He made some good decisions."
It was an odd day for the defense. It had a season-high turnovers and sacks (five) and hit Yates 10 times, and yet gave up 163 yards to him in the last 11:35.
"If you consider percentages, when a team has to go 80 yards to score, the defense is favored," said outside linebacker Manny Lawson. "Their offense did a hell of a job making plays and capitalized on our mistakes."
Now Maualuga knew no one would remember what would have been the game's signature plays.
"Everything good that happened in the game is all forgotten," he said.
NO CADENCE: For the second time in four games a cadence problem cost the Bengals big time in the red zone. The Bengals had the ball first and inches on their second possession when right guard Bobbie Williams false-started on a drive that ended up getting only a field goal. In the last drive in Baltimore back on Nov. 20, the noise appeared to be the factor, but on Sunday the Bengals were at home in front of Paul Brown Stadium's second-smallest crowd (41,202) in history.
"We had one cadence messed up on a false start when we really had a chance to pounce on them," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "It was just little silly things in the red zone that hurt us. When you don't get touchdowns and end up with field goals, you give teams a chance to come back."
RED LETTER: It was a tough day for Houston native Andy Dalton. He shot the Bengals to a 16-3 halftime lead with 10 points in the final three minutes. His 17-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jerome Simpson on a third-and-three gave the Bengals a 13-3 lead, and then he used a 22-yard shovel pass to wide receiver Andrew Hawkins and a 10-yard throw over the middle to tight end Jermaine Gresham to get Mike Nugent's 49-yard field goal with 11 seconds left.
But barely had the Bengals bottled that momentum when they let the Texans back in the game on the second snap of the second half. University of Cincinnati product Connor Barwin, Houston's leading sacker, drilled Dalton from the blind side on play-action, he lost the ball, Houston recovered at the 17 and the Texans used just four plays to cut the lead to 16-10.
Barwin victimized rookie tight end Colin Cochart as the Bengals had him isolated on the edge in a run formation.
"They were in a formation that was supposed to make us think they were going to run," Barwin told The Houston Chronicle. "They were in max protection. I got off the ball well, and I knocked his (Cochart) arm down and got around him. When I got to the quarterback, I made sure to strip the ball."
Dalton, who finished with an 89.7 passer rating, had the ball just 13 minutes in the second half and the Bengals could only get a field goal after his 36-yard jump ball to wide receiver A.J. Green put the ball on the Texans 9.
"We couldn't get it done," Dalton said of the red zone. "They made a couple plays on the ball. They had a couple good coverages out there, and they played the run well. Obviously, we would have liked to get touchdowns. We have to get better."
Dalton has now thrown a touchdown pass in 10 straight games, but it was Cincinnati's lone touchdown. Nine of his 18 touchdown passes have come on third down. Only Eli Manning (11), Drew Brees (10) and Tony Romo (10) have more.