The Bengals' undefeated season came to an end Monday night at Paul Brown Stadium on fourth-and-six when Texans safety Quintin Demps forced wide receiver A.J. Green to fumble the ball at the Houston 22 with 40 seconds left for a stunning 10-6 loss that featured no Cincinnati touchdowns by the NFL's No. 3 scoring team.
Green had the first down, but as it happened all night, the Bengals just couldn't convert. Quarterback Andy Dalton had a 61 passer rating on a night he completed just 22 of 38 passes for 197 yards as the Bengals could scrounge only a season-low 256 yards, the same amount their defense stuffed on Houston.
After Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt rung up his first regular-season sack against the Bengals, they were staring at a third-and-18 from their own 11 with 3:06 left in the game and had converted just three of their 12 previous third downs. But Dalton found wide receiver A.J. Green over the middle for a 26-yard gain and running back Giovani Bernard scooted for a 15-yard catch to put the ball at the Texans 48 at the two-minute warning.
Some bad déjà vu entered into this 8-0 season in the form of Texans backup quarterback T.J. Yates. Yates had been unemployed until a few weeks ago when Ryan Mallett's alarm clock went on the fritz.
It will be recalled when Yates made his first NFL start as a rookie in 2011 at PBS, he led the Texans to a 20-19 victory on a six-yard touchdown pass with two seconds left.
With Texans starting quarterback Brian Hoyer out with a concussion late in the third quarter, Yates came into throw his first passes of the season and two went for third-down conversions and another went for a wondrous one-handed 22-yard touchdown catch by wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to give the Texans a 10-6 lead with 14:20 left in the game.
Cornerback Adam Jones had good position on Hopkins, but he leaped over Jones and one-handed for the first TD Jones has given up this season. It was Yates' first touchdown pass since that 2011 season and the Texans' win over the Bengals in the Wild Card game.
When Yates converted the two third downs a third-and-eight and third-and-13 to tight end Ryan Griffin the Bengals brought the blitz a little too late and on one of them, linebacker Vincent Rey, was called for a late hit on Yates.
The Bengals offense, paralyzed by its inability to loosen up the sagging Houston defense with a running game, had no answers as the game lurched into the fourth quarter. Heading into the fourth quarter, Dalton had targeted Green just three times and not since the middle of the first quarter. And tight end Tyler Eifert had just two balls thrown his way as the Texans posted their safeties high and cornerbacks off the line.
And when Dalton finally did get Eifert open on one third down with 12 minutes left in the game, Dalton missed him badly in the middle of the field when Eifert peeled off his route. Eifert also had three drops.
The Texans' NFL-leading third-down defense showed up as advertised as the Bengals whiffed on their first four third downs of the second half as the league's fourth-best third down offense finished 4-for-14 on conversions.
With nine minutes left the Bengals were pinned on their own four and moved 20 yards. But on second down Eifert dropped his second pass of the night over the middle and on third down when Dalton went to Green for the first time since the first quarter, old friend Johnathan Joseph undercut the route to force a punt with seven minutes left.
Joseph, the 10-year cornerback, bedeviled his former mates again on the Bengals' first possession of the second half when Dalton overthrew wide receiver Marvin Jones on a bomb down the middle of the field and Joseph tapped it around before making a juggling catch at his own 29. It was his fourth straight game against the Bengals with an interception.
But, as they did most of the night, the Bengals defense had the answer. On the Texans' ensuing drive the Bengals stopped a third down pass, but cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was called for a hands-to-the-face flag to keep the drive alive.
Nine penalties, tying a season-high, killed the Bengals all night. On the play before Joseph's interception, running back Jeremy Hill's 15-yard run was wiped out by an illegal formation call on left tackle Andrew Whitworth.
Yet on the next third down after Kirkpatrick's penalty, a third-and-three, safety George Iloka dropped running back Jonathan Grimes for a one-yard loss to force another punt.
With the Texans rushing four and applying pressure while flooding the secondary with seven defenders, the Bengals' high-octane offense was frustrated and went into halftime without a touchdown for just the second time this season.
A spry Bengals defense bailed them out when Mike Nugent's 39-yard field goal with 5:25 left in the first half gave the Bengals a 6-3 halftime lead.
The Bengals had no semblance of a running game with running backs Giovani Bernard (8-36) and Jeremy Hill (7-15) racking up just 73 yards on 21 carries. The Bengals had a tough time blocking Watt, the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Watt helped defuse the Bengals' bid to score in the two-minute drill at the end of the half when he forced right tackle Eric Winston into a holding call. Watt beat Winston, his former Texans teammate, for his sack late in the game.
The failure on the early downs led to the struggles on third down and Dalton was harassed for most of his 38 passes. Houston's deep drops to take away the long ball held the Bengals' longest gain to Green's 26-yard catch at the end.
Working against the NFL's leading third-down defense, the Bengals didn't get their first third-down conversion until that drive yielding the go-ahead field goal and it came on rookie cornerback Kevin Johnson's pass interference penalty working against Green (five catches for a team-high 57 yards). Bernard then converted the next two on a pair of great second-effort runs, one on a check-down pass.
And they should have got the first down at the Texans 12, but Eifert dropped a third-down pass over the middle when he let it hit his chest and Nugent had to kick the 39-yarder for the lead.
The Bengals overcame a bevy of penalties to take a 3-0 first-quarter lead over on Nugent's 42-yard field goal and a defense that didn't allow a first down until the last minute of the first quarter.
The Texans matched it with Nick Novack's 22-yard field goal with 12:16 left, courtesy of three straight big plays in the middle of the field, one a 16-yard scramble up the middle by Hoyer to the Bengals 5. But when the Texans got to the 1, linebacker Vincent Rey and cornerback Darqueze Dennard dropped running back Alfred Blue for a three-yard loss and on third down Dennard knocked away a pass headed to Hopkins to force the field goal.
Dennard was in the game because Adam Jones was out with a shoulder injury, but he returned.
Nugent had to back up 10 yards when rookie tight end Tyler Kroft was called for a hold to negate the kick. It was the fourth penalty in the Bengals' first three drives and Kroft's second. His first one erased cornerback Adam Jones' 27-yard punt return that put the ball on the Houston 28.
The Bengals did get in the red zone eventually on Dalton's 20-yard pass to Green over the middle. They came into the game second in the league in scoring touchdowns in the red zone, but needed a field goal this time when wide receiver Marvin Jones was dropped for an eight-yard loss on a reverse.
In seven of the eight previous games the Bengals had scored a touchdown on their first or second series. It didn't happen Monday. The first drive got blown up largely because of a holding penalty on fullback Ryan Hewitt on the game's first snap and an illegal procedure call on left guard Clint Boling when Watt lined up over him and Dalton had to unload an incompletion in the face of linebacker Brian Cushing's third-and-five blitz.
Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson made it clear, though, he was going to concentrate on getting the ball out of Dalton hands quickly and set up wide receiver screens to Green and Marvin Jones behind tackles split wide and an unbalanced lined.
In an effort to get his first regular-season sack against the Bengals, Watt lined up over every offensive lineman but right guard Kevin Zeitler in the first two series.
The second drive also died because of a penalty. Marvin Jones drew a 30-yard pass interference call on Kevin Johnson, but on second-and-seven from the Texans 41, outside linebacker Whitney Merciless defeated Eifert's block to stone Hill and on third down Eifert was called for a false start.
The Texans did nothing on their first series after they also picked up a penalty on their first snap when Hopkins was called for pushing off Kirkpatrick. And on the second series the Bengals beat the Texans at their own game when on third down they blitzed up the middle and Rey picked up his first sack of the season dumping Hoyer at the Houston 10.
The Bengals defense was brilliant in the half. They were on the field just 10 minutes, they shut out Hopkins, the Texans' leading receiver, and held Houston to just 108 yards. Hopkins, who came in on pace for 132 catches, didn't get his first catch until the first series of the second half. But that turned into a punt, too, when the Bengals blitzed Hoyer with SAM backer Emmanuel Lamur and it forced Hoyer to overthrow Hopkins past the first-down sticks. PRE-GAME NOTES:A steady light rain began to pelt Paul Brown Stadium about an hour before Monday's game against the Texans and that was about the only pre-game surprise when Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis delivered his inactive list.
As expected, former Texan Eric Winston got his second straight start with right tackle Andre Smith (concussion) scratched again. Defensive tackle Pat Sims, who has been inactive four of the last six games, got the nod in place of Brandon Thompson. And they opted to go with five linebackers and eight defensive linemen instead of six and seven when they activated end Margus Hunt for the second straight week and sat rookie linebacker P.J. Dawson.
That's probably because they hoped WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga were going to play the entire game together for the first time since Oct. 12, 2014.
Also inactive for the Bengals were three rookies that have yet to play, wide receiver Mario Alford, tight end C.J. Uzomah, and defensive tackle Marcus Hardison. Also inactive for the third straight game was veteran cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris.
BOOMER IN THE HOUSE: Boomer Esiason, the 1988 NFL MVP for the Bengals, returned to call the game on Westwood One Radio, and can't get enough of his team's 8-0 start.
"I'm looking forward to hear what the crowd sounds like," Esiason said. "I brought my nephew and guy I work with at WFAN who are big Bengals fans. I said, 'Let's go see your team.' "
In the wake of injuries to Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman and Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, Esiason called the Bengals one of Sunday's big winners even without playing a snap.
Cincinnati Bengals host Houston Texans at Paul Brown Stadium in week 10 of the regular season.