With 4:25 left in Sunday's Theater-of-the-Absurd at Paul Brown Stadium, Bengals rookie kicker Clint Stitser looked to be the hero in his NFL debut with a 47-yard field goal that gave the Bengals a 30-27 lead. But it turned into the Saints' 34-30 victory and the Bengals' ninth straight loss.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees stunned the Bengals less than a minute after the field goal with New Orleans's fifth 42-or-plus-yard play of the day when his play-action fake sprung wide receiver Robert Meachem for a wide-open 42-yard catch that set up the Saints at the Bengals 18 at the two-minute warning. Facing a fourth-and-two from the Bengals 7 and clearly trying to draw them offsides, the Saints did when defensive tackle Pat Sims jumped. On the next snap Brees hit wide receiver Marques Colston working against cornerback Johnathan Joseph for a three-yard touchdown with 31 seconds left.
After the Bengals had cut the lead to 20-19 with 13:38 left, Brees bounced back less than a minute later when his play-action pass to a wide-open Meachem was good for a 52-yard touchdown catch running past cornerback Jonathan Wade on a double move to make it 27-19.
But before 59,963, the Bengals continued to defy imagination when it comes to being in a game and then suddenly being out of it when quarterback Michael Johnson's two-point laser over the middle to tight end Jermaine Gresham tied the game at 27 with 8:08 left after running back scored from four yards out to cut the Saints lead to 27-25.
With 10:49 left, all looked lost. Facing a third-and-one from midfield, the Bengals called a timeout just before the play got off. Then, when they came back, left guard Nate Livings false-started to make it third-and-six and when a pass to Jordan Shipley was short a couple of yards head coach Marvin Lewis drew boos when he decided to punt.
When the Bengals did punt, they got a first down because the Saints had 12 men on the field. Then after wide receiver Chad Ochocinco's 11-yard catch was overturned on a replay challenge to set up a third-and-10 and Palmer went back to him for a 21-yard catch over the middle at the Saints 8 to set up Benson's four-yard touchdown run with 8:08 left to set up the two-pointer.
After the first five minutes and first series of the second half, the Bengals trailed the Saints, 20-6, despite getting 32 snaps and three red-zone shots in the first half. They did cut it to 20-12 later in the third quarter because Stitser pushed an extra point wide right after he had made two short field goals.
Saints running back Chris Ivory walked in from one yard out to cap the first drive of the second half after tight end Jeremy Shockey's one-handed diving catch for 18 yards at the Bengals 3. As Lewis ran down the sideline trying to get the challenge flag out of his pocket, the Saints ran the next play.
But the Bengals came back to score on their first possession of the half, the big play a 33-yard pass to Ochocinco on third-and-10 for his first catch of the day. It was a rescue run-and-catch over the middle as Palmer ran up in the pocket. Palmer then hooked up for a five-yard touchdown catch to wide receiver Terrell Owens off a play-fake as Owens ran away from cornerback Jabari Greer with 3:54 left in the third quarter.
Then safety George Iloka made his first interception as a Bengal, an over-the-shoulder grab of a Brees overthrow at midfield and his return put the Bengals in business at the Saints 46. Palmer went right to The Ocho and drilled him on a diving 20-yard comeback route.
The Super Bowl-champion Saints stoned the Bengals' bid to take a halftime lead when Benson got stood up on fourth-and-inches from the New Orleans 5 as Cincinnati failed for the third time to score a red-zone touchdown and fell behind, 13-6 at the half.
With defensive tackle Domata Peko lined up as his fullback, Benson had no room on the left side as he was hit by a host of Saints led by middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma. The Bengals left the red zone littered with 15 down-the-drain points in the half and it was just the second time in 13 tries the Bengals failed on fourth down this season. Earlier in the drive they converted fourth-and-inches when Gresham outfought safety Roman Harper over the middle and ran away from him for a 23-yard gain.
Then, the defense, brilliant most of the day, chose to falter, too. Tight end Jimmy Graham, a 260-pounder, lumbered behind the secondary to catch Brees's floater for a 52-yard play that would have been a touchdown if not for safety Reggie Nelson's diving tackle at the Bengals 12. The Bengals held for Garrett Hartley's 24-yard field goal to make it 13-6 with 13 seconds left, but for the fifth time in six games the Bengals allowed points in the final 1:17 of the half.
And their chance to get points of their own late failed when Palmer one-hopped a ball to Ochocinco on the sideline. The Ocho didn't have a catch in the half and Palmer was 11-of-17 for 103 yards.
The Bengals stopped the Saints on their first three third downs and didn't allow one until that last drive of a half Brees was 8-of-11 for 114 yards.
But it was two big plays that killed the Bengals.
Stitser tied it on his first NFL field-goal attempt, a 29-yarder with 13:03 left in the second quarter that pulled the Bengals even with the Saints at 3.
But he could get the ensuing kickoff only to the Saints 25 and New Orleans got the ball at the 30, which summed up another one-step-forward-two-step-back day for the Bengals. Three plays later Ivory had one of the oddest 55-yard touchdown runs you'll ever see when he broke from right tackle to right guard and slithered out of the scrum with no Bengal more than five yards back and Ivory was gone to make it 10-3 with 11:53 left in the second quarter.
It was the NFL-leading 15th run of 20 yards or more allowed by the Bengals this season.
Stitser came back to hit a 23-yarder after another red-zone failure to cut the lead to 10-6 with 9:41 left in the first half.
The Bengals had a first-and-10 from the Saints 10 after a 45-yard pass interference call on cornerback Tracy Porter working against Owens. But the unblocked Harper dropped Benson for a four-yard loss on the right edge. Benson ran again for two yards and a slant to Owens only got to the 5.
The Bengals got their first field goal only after a magical mystery tour netted just 43 yards on 13 plays. Their third drive of the game saw a hold on tight end Reggie Kelly, a false start on left tackle Andrew Whitworth, dropped balls over the middle from Gresham and Ochocinco, and a sack of Palmer by a blitzing and untouched Vilma.
But the Bengals also got a 17-yard catch by Gresham on third-and-15 in which he made linebacker Scott Shanle miss for the first down, an 18-yard run by Bernard Scott with the aid of a block by wide receiver Andre Caldwell, and a 12-yard catch by running back Brian Leonard over the middle on fourth-and-12 that made the Bengals 10-for-11 for the season on fourth down.
But Benson's conversion of a third-and-inches inside the 10 got blown up when tackle Anthony Collins was left uncovered on the end of the line and the Bengals were called for an illegal formation.
Gresham set the Bengals rookie tight end record with his 46th catch of the season on the Bengals' first third-down snap on the third play of the game on third-and-five. But he stepped out of bounds inches from the first-down marker and the Bengals opted to punt inside their 40.
Brees immediately made it hurt when he hit Colston on a 43-yard play off play-action. New Orleans was in field-goal range, but a third down sack from rookie linemen Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins forced the Saints to punt. But WILL linebacker Brandon Johnson ran into punter Thomas Morstead, moving the Saints up and Garrett Hartley converted a 48-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead with less than nine minutes left in the first quarter.
The offense responded with another listless three-and-out. After Benson ripped off six yards up the middle, Owens went up one-handed high over the middle for an incompletion and on third-and-four a screen pass to Leonard on the left perimeter got blown up before it even started for a four-yard loss.
Punter Kevin Huber and their pass rush were the Bengals' best weapons early. After his first punt went 55 yards, he drilled the next one 58 yards to set New Orleans up at its own 5. And the Bengals nearly scored a safety on first and third down on rushes from Atkins and George Iloka to force a punt.
PREGAME NOTES: The Bengals got back two secondary starters when cornerback Johnathan Joseph and safety Roy Williams were in the starting lineup for Sunday's game against the Saints at Paul Brown Stadium. They were healthy enough that cornerback Fred Bennett was inactive even though the Bengals were bracing for plenty of play from their nickel package.
Also active after missing last week's game against the Jets was cornerback Rico Murray. But cornerback Brandon Ghee (groin) was out, as was Saints running back Pierre Thomas.
If the Bengals were going to play some of their younger players, one of them wasn't going to be wide receiver Jerome Simpson, inactive for the ninth time this season after being active and not playing last week. Running back Clark Harris and center Reggie Stephens were out, as they have been pretty much all year, along with newcomers Kirk Chambers, a tackle, and defensive end Victor Adeyanju.
The sun broke out ever so briefly during pregame and then slid back into a mostly cloudy sky. The temperature hovered around freezing, but the 10 mile-per-hour wind made it feel like 23 degrees and the wind was supposed to reach as high as 14 miles per hour.
The Bengals, 14-20 in their black jerseys and white pants, were putting their glittering NFC home record on the line against the Super Bowl champs. Starting with their last win over the Saints on Dec. 22, 2002, the Bengals were 12-3-1 at PBS against the NFC.
Head coach Marvin Lewis announced his offensive starters and the Bengals won the toss, opting to receive with Bernard Scott and Quan Cosby back to receive.