Updated: 4:05 p.m.
MINNEAPOLIS - The Bengals' bid to make a run at the NFL elite suffered a meltdown Sunday at The Metrodome when another rash of penalties, a dropped end-zone interception, and a critical turnover on the last play of the first half contributed to a 30-10 Vikings knockout on a day the Bengals were hoping to raise the AFC North belt.
When Vikings running back Adrian Peterson scored from four yards out with 3:24 left, it marked the most points the Bengals No. 1 NFL scoring defense had allowed this season.
It also put quarterback Carson Palmer on the bench as J.T. O'Sullivan mopped up and his first snap, naturally in this Bengals' flag fest, was whistled for 12 men on the field.
The Bengals, a win away from taking the division, only clinched frustration and it was summed up on a third-and-one with six minutes left in the third quarter. First, they had to call timeout to get the play off, and then rookie right tackle Andre Smith appeared to miss his man as defensive tackle Kevin Williams blew up running back Cedric Benson to force a punt.
Benson ripped off 96 yards on 16 carries to just miss breaking the Bengals single-season record with his sixth 100-yard game and snapping Minnesota's streak at 35 of not allowing a 100-yard rusher.
But 42 of those yards came on one run late in the third quarter, and the Bengals failed again when Benson got stuffed in the red zone and they had to settle for a Shayne Graham field goal that made it 23-10 early in the fourth quarter.
Palmer and his passing game struggled on his his 25 throws, which netted just 94 yards on 15 completions. The Vikings only had one sack, but on the snaps Palmer wasn't harassed, he couldn't connect with anybody downfield. His longest completion was 15 yards.
Typical of the day was running back Brian Leonard's fumble that turned into Ryan Longwell's 44-yard field goal as the half ended to give the Vikings a 16-7 lead.
And the angst kept rolling when Peterson flew over the pile for a one-yard touchdown run to cap the first series of the second half and hand the Bengals a 23-7 deficit with 8:40 left in the third quarter.
That yard snapped the Bengals eight-game streak of not allowing teams to rush for 100 yards and the 23 points were the most they had allowed since the 28-17 loss to the Texans Oct. 18.
But the Ravens running backs hurt the Bengals more in the passing game than in the running game. Leading 3-0, Vikes quarterback Brett Favre threw his longest pass of the half, a 28-yard flare to Peterson on second-and-20 as he ran past linebackers Rey Maualuga and Dhani Jones to set up a touchdown that made it 10-0.
Maualuga had been called for unnecessary roughness covering a punt that set up the drive when he kept hitting the Vikings returner into the sidelines.
Then on the Vikes' TD drive that opened the half, running back Chester Taylor beat Jones and Brandon Johnson on a pass for 17 yards.
Trailing 10-7, the Bengals looked ready to stop the Vikings after the two-minute warning when they dumped Taylor for a two-yard loss at the Bengals 48. But defensive tackle Pat Sims was nailed for a 15-yard penalty on a facemask violation. The Bengals still looked to get out of it on a second-down play in the red zone in which cornerback Johnathan Joseph battled Vikins wide receiver Sidney Rice for position in the end zone and had an interception in his hands, but he dropped it.
Cornerback Leon Hall forced a Longwell field goal to make it 13-7 with 40 seconds left on a nice tackle on wide receiver Bernard Berrian, and given how badly the offense played, that wouldn't have been too bad.
But the Bengals had one more miscue to end the half and it cost them three ridiculous points. With two timeouts and the ball on their own 20 with 38 seconds left, it appeared as if they couldn't decide whether to go for it or kill the clock. They got a good gain on first down, but didn't call timeout before trying a screen pass to Leonard. Leonard was sent head over feet on a hit by cornerback Antoine Winfield that forced a fumble and set up Longwell's 45-yard field goal with four seconds left.
It was one of those first halves in which the Vikings looked they were playing at warp speed compared to the Bengals. They took a 10-lead with 8:54 left in the first half on a third-down play in which left end Robert Geathers had a clear shot at Favre, but he threw a nine-yard touchdown pass to Rice cutting over the middle away from linebacker Dhani Jones.
The Bengals offense had no answers in the dome din until midway through the second quarter when a wide open Chad Ochocinco caught a 15-yard touchdown pass from Palmer to cut the Vikings lead to 10-7 with 3:56 left in the first half.
The Ocho, who didn't celebrate, had been held to one catch before keeping the touchdown drive alive on Cincinnati's first third-down conversion with a quick slant underneath, and Palmer delivered two more like it on third down to wide receiver Andre Caldwell. The Bengals also got two big runs out of Benson for about 20 yards and picked up 15 more when defensive tackle Kevin Williams was called for taking a late shot at Palmer on the sidelines as he scrambled out of bounds.
But except for that drive, the Bengals offense was awful with 16 yards of offense in the first quarter, 15 on the ground, and had about half as many penalties. The first half stat sheet was ugly. The Bengals had eight penalties for 65 yards and 104 yards of offense, 41 yards for Benson on seven carries while Palmer could muster just 60 yards on 10-of-18 passing.
And while Favre wasn't lighting it up either with 118 yards passing on 11-of-20, but the Vikings were four-of-eight on third down against the Bengals' best-in-the-NFL third-down defense.
With strong safety Chris Crocker leaving the game early in the first half, Favre took a few shots over the middle at his replacement, rookie free safety Tom Nelson. The Vikings also knew defensive tackle Domata Peko was out, all the more reason to give the ball to Peterson against the NFL's second-best run defense.
So what else is new? The defense carried the Bengals in the game's first 16 minutes, and the Vikings took a 3-0 lead in the first minute of the second quarter on Longwell's 41-yard field goal.
That came after defensive lineman Jon Fanene came up the middle to sack Favre on third down. Near the end of the first quarter Favre wheeled out of the pocket after avoiding a Geathers sack, but his 21-yard touchdown pass was waved off when Favre threw it crossing over the line of scrimmage.
With the Bengals committing seven penalties in the first 10 minutes, cornerback Leon Hall kept them afloat with his fifth interception of the season to stop the Vikings' second series at the Bengals 30.
Hall, tying a career high, took advantage of linebacker Brandon Johnson's rush of Favre rolling out of the pocket and cut in front of Berrian.
Just as the Bengals feared their sloppiness of the past three weeks followed them on the first series of the game when the Bengals committed two false starts and an offensive pass interference penalty.
The miscues erased a 14-yard third-down conversion pass to Leonard and Benson's 12-yard run up the middle when defensive lineman Brian Robison came up the middle to sack Palmer on third-and-long.
But the Bengals defense sent the Vikes on a three-and-out when Favre was a little long to Rice down the left sideline and Hall tipped it away running in front of Rice.
PREGAME NOTES: Safety Chris Crocker got the start Sunday for the Bengals despite his ankle injury, but special teams captain and backup safety Kyries Hebert was sidelined with a knee problem.
Also down for the Bengals besides defensive tackle Domata Peko (knee) and running back Bernard Scott (toe) were the usual array of backups. The Vikings had to ice third-down ace and kick return threat Percy Harvin (headaches) in a move that cushions Hebert's loss a bit. Harvin has two kick returns for touchdowns this season and Hebert has the second-most tackles on special teams.
The Bengals actually made their first inactive move Saturday just before they left Paul Brown Stadium when they released defensive tackle Shaun Smith and replaced him with rookie cornerback Rico Murray. With Crocker and Hebert not practicing this week until Friday in limited fashion, the Bengals opted to sign off the practice squad Murray, a free agent out of Kent State.
The move apparently had nothing to do with how Smith's week went after he signed with the club this past Wednesday, but had everything to with the Bengals' health in their secondary. All indications are that Smith, on the street for all but the last three weeks, wasn't going to be active anyway even with Peko sidelined. The Bengals are shooting for Peko to return for the Jan. 3 finale on the road againt the Jets following his December arthroscopic surgery.
The other starter down for the Vikes was strong safety Tyrell Johnson, giving rookie Jamarca Sanford, a seventh-rounder out of Mississippi, his first NFL start.
Also down for the Bengals were fullback Fui Vakapuna, center Jonathan Luigs, linebacker Dan Skuta, and wide receiver Jerome Simpson.
With the 9-3 Bengals and 10-2 Vikes closing in on their division titles, the national media showed up in force led by Steve Wyche of the NFL Network and Alex Marvez of Foxsports.com. Also in the house were Jon Saraceno of USA Today, James Walker of ESPN.com and Rachel Nichols of ESPN.
Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco, stalked by the NFL for last week's "Sombrero Celebration," was seen by some media members hooking up with Vikings mascot Ragnar about three hours before the game. They hugged and were seen chatting, which may mean the mascot is going to help The Ocho follow through on his pregame pledge to celebrate a touchdown by blowing on Ragnar's horn.
The Bengals, wearing white jerseys and black pants, won the toss, elected to receive, and rookie wide receiver Quan Cosby dropped back deep. Andre Smith got his first NFL start at right tackle.