Updated: 4 p.m.
The Bengals offense has to start scoring in the other 56 minutes of the game and their defense has to stop giving up big plays at any time if this season is going to end up in the playoffs.
They did neither Sunday as a restless crowd of 64,019 watched Texans quarterback Matt Schaub flirt with 400 passing yards (392) while wide receiver Andre Johnson (135) and running back Steve Slaton (102) had 100-yard receiving days and tight end Owen Daniels added two touchdown catches in dealing the Bengals a 28-17 loss.
The 4-2 Bengals, who used their late magic a half early when they scored 10 points in the final 48 seconds of the first half, took a 17-14 halftime lead but couldn't mount another drive until the two-minute warning neared at the end of the game and saw their four-game losing streak end.
The 3-3 Texans needed just the first 3:37 of the second half to retake the lead, 21-17, on Schaub's 23-yard touchdown pass off a play-action fake that left wide receiver Jacoby Jones wide open in the middle of the field as the teams began to slip into shootout mode.
Instead, it ignited a horrendous third quarter of football matched only by the first quarter against the Steelers last month as the Bengals offense could only get two first downs, both by penalties. They got a dropped third-down pass from Andre Caldwell, gave up a third-down sack when Texans rookie Connor Barwin beat right tackle Dennis Roland around the edge, and tight end Daniel Coats lost another fumble.
Daniels made it official with a diving one-handed grab for a seven-yard touchdown with 2:29 left in the third quarter that made it 28-17. The misery continued right to the last play of the third when cornerback Johnathan Joseph dropped a pass on the sidelines that appeared he could have taken 80 yards.
The Bengals had one last gasp with 6:12 left in the game when left end Robert Geathers swatted the ball out of Slaton's hand. But two snaps later tight end J.P. Foschi fumbled it away for one of Cincinnati's three turnovers.
But it had looked so much brighter just a half hour before when quarterback Carson Palmer rolled to his left and patiently waited for wide receiver Laveranues Coles to come open on the back line of the end zone for an eight-yard touchdown pass with 48 seconds left in the first half that tied the game at 14.
Then safety Chris Crocker stepped in front of Schaub's pass in the middle of the field at about the 50 with nine seconds left. With two timeouts left, Palmer threw a nine-yard dump pass to Coats over the middle to set up Shayne Graham's 50-yard field goal try. With the aid of former Texans long snapper Clark Harris making his Bengals debut, Graham nailed it after also hitting two successful PATs.
Palmer had his best day passing as he ended the half with a 116.6 passer rating on 13-of-19 for 182 yards. He found wide receiver Chad Ochocinco three times for 80 yards, including a 50-yarder right down the middle that set up the last touchdown. It was Ocho's longest catch since the 2007 finale. But the offense came out flat in the second half and stayed that way as Palmer finished 23-of-35 for 259 yards with one touchdown and a late interception for an 85.3 rating.
Palmer couldn't keep pace with Schaub's 28-of-40 passing for a 124.2 rating.
The defense spent the first quarter and a half getting pummeled by the Texans and injuries in falling behind 14-7 with 7:59 left in the first half. They did respond by posting two straight three-and-outs but not before the Texans made some damage.
Slaton popped a 38-yard touchdown play off a bubble screen as he followed left tackle Duane Brown's hellacious block of Crocker to give Houston that 14-7 lead with 7:59 left. Plus the Bengals were operating without two of their best defensive linemen when NFL sack leader Antwan Odom was driven off the field with a frightening right Achilles injury and tackle Domata Peko left the first series with a left knee injury and was doubtful to return.
Schaub hit Daniels with a 12-yard touchdown pass for a 7-0 lead with 48 seconds left in the first quarter on the same play Odom injured his Achilles. Odom left on a cart and it was announced he wouldn't return, heightening fears he suffered a season-ending tear.
The Bengals responded with running back Cedric Benson's 10-yard touchdown run to tie it at seven early in the second quarter on a drive Caldwell kept alive with two straight third-down conversions. The Ocho jump-started the drive with what is now becoming one of his patented shallow routes he turns into a big run-and-catch. This one went for 23 yards.
The Bengals special teams finally wreaked havoc on an opposing kicking team rather than their own and it was Odom that blocked Texans kicker Kris Brown's 28-yard field-goal attempt with 9:12 left in the first quarter to keep the game scoreless.
It's a good thing because the fast-break Texans offense caught the Bengals on its first three plays for 71 yards, the big one a 59-yard screen pass to Andre Johnson. But the Bengals held when Odom chased Schaub out of the pocket on third-and-four to force an incompletion.
Houston caught SAM linebacker Rey Maualuga blitzing and Johnson slipped around the perimeter. Daniels went over the middle for 12 yards and Slaton (43 yards on 19 rushes) gashed for seven more to get it to the 11 before the Bengals held.
The Bengals' first two drives were crippled by penalties. On the first series a first-down pass to Laveranues Coles for 15 yards was eliminated on a holding call by left tackle Andrew Whitworth on the perimeter. On the next series Benson's nine-yard run was wiped out by Foschi's hold on the outside of the play and on the next snap right guard Bobbie Williams was called for tripping.
Andre Johnson finished the half with 84 yards on four catches and Schaub rung up 203 yards on 13-of-22 passing, but what really hurt the Bengals was Slaton. The Texans came into the game averaging three yards per carry, but Slaton made a bunch of guys miss on the way to 4.6 yards per carry in the first half with 41 yards on nine carries. In wake of the injuries, the Bengals went with Tank Johnson and Pat Sims at tackle and Jonathan Fanene for Odom at right end.
With Palmer still wearing a cast on his left thumb, he handed off to Benson 12 times for 34 yards in the first half with his right hand. It was tough going for Benson. For the first time this season Benson was stopped on a third-and-one when rookie linebacker Brian Cushing knifed inside Coats. Benson finished with a season-low 44 yards on 16 carries.
PREGAME NOTES: The Bengals shelved running back Brian Leonard (groin) for Sunday's game against the Texans, as well as strong safety Roy Williams (forearm). Dennis Roland got his first start of the season at right tackle in place of Anthony Collins and second of his career.
Chinedum Ndukwe got the start for Williams, who apparently only has a bad bruise and not another fracture in his forearm. That's the injury that took Williams out of all but two games in Dallas last year. But it is the second game he's missed in three weeks. After missing the last two games defensive tackle Tank Johnson (foot) got back in the lineup. Other inactives for the Bengals were defensive end Frostee Rucker and offensive lineman Scott Kooistra. Also, for the sixth straight game wide receiver Jerome Simpson, tight end Chase Coffman, and right tackle Andre Smith sat out.
Roland, whose only other start came in last year's finale, played most of last week's win in Baltimore when he came into the game on the third series. Leonard has emerged as a key player on third down, so the Bengals may have to do what they did against the Steelers three weeks ago and use a lot of fullback Jeremi Johnson.
The Texans made starting defensive tackle Shaun Cody inactive and are going with the little-used Frank Okam, a second-year fifth-round pick from Texas. Which Houston run defense will the Bengals get? The one that allowed just an average of 40 yards per game the last two weeks, or the one that gave up about 200 a game in the first couple of games of the season?
Before a sun-splashed crowd at Paul Brown Stadium, the Bengals offense was introduced in their orange jerseys and white pants. After a moment of silence for Vikki Zimmer, the wife of Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, the Bengals won the toss and took the ball.