HOUSTON - Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton converted a fourth-down pass to tight end C.J. Uzomah and running back Rex Burkhead ran for nine yards to set up former Texans kicker Randy Bullock's 43-yard field goal try that sailed wide right on the game's last play that gave Houston a 12-10 victory and the AFC South title.
It summed up the Bengals 5-9-1 season.
The defense stood up again, as it did much of the night, in the wake of the Bengals' first turnover of the game early in the fourth quarter when rookie wide receiver Tyler Boyd let Dalton's catchable high pass on a shallow crossing route bounce off his hands and it was intercepted by safety Will Demps at the Bengals 40.
But a nice third down pass defensed by linebacker Vincent Rey forced a punt and it took Dalton just three plays to generate their only touchdown of the night. It came on his longest NFL pass, a third-and-five slant that wide receiver Brandon LaFell turned into an 86-yard touchdown on a catch-and-run against a nine-man front. He sprung himself loose on safety Andre Hall's missed tackle in the middle of the field that gave the Bengals a 10-6 lead with 10:45 left.
It was the Bengals' first fourth-quarter touchdown since Oct. 30, but for the fifth time this season they couldn't hold a fourth-quarter lead. The defense couldn't wrest the momentum for good and let Texans quarterback Tom Savage march right back down the field for a TD in his first NFL start that made it 12-10 with 8:41 left when lineman Margus Hunt blocked the extra point for his third blocked kick of the year.
Texans ace receiver DeAndre Hopkins didn't have a catch until the fourth quarter, but he had a big shake and miss of cornerback Adam Jones for 21 yards to set up running back Alfred Blue's 24-yard touchdown run, an untouched gash over the caved in left side of the Bengals defensive line.
The Texans' big adjustment at the half was going up tempo and putting Savage in the shotgun after he was a miserable 2-for-7 in the first half for his team's minus haul in the pasing game. But he finished 18-for-29 for 176 yards on a strange night the Bengals had 45 more yards after holding the Texans to 250.
Despite no A.J. Green annd no Tyler Eifert and getting a mere 2.6 yards per rush on 19 carries, Dalton hung in against the NFL's No. 1 defense for an 84.2 passer rating when he hit 21 of 48 passes for 268 yards.
After blanking the Texans in the first half, the Bengals defense lived last week's yellow flag nightmare in the third quarter when they were called for five penalties, three in a drive that gave the Texans a 6-3 lead with 13:31 left in a game of field goals, this one a 22-yarder by Nick Novak.
One flag was a hit in the head of Savage by Hunt for 15 yards and then Adam Jones was called for two third-down penalties for automatic first downs instead of punts.
But the Texans are No. 31 in red zone touchdown percentage for a reason and the Bengals forced Novak on to the field.
As had to be expected against the NFL's No. 1 defense in a rollicking building anticipating an AFC South title, Cedric Ogbuehi struggled at times in his first NFL start at left tackle and when he gave up his second sack of the game it blew up the Bengals' only possession of the third quarter. It was an eight-yard loss and the Bengals had to resort to throwing a screen pass on third-and-14 for a yard.
Savage, held to two of seven passing in the first half for 13 yards, came out up-tempo with his first two throws of the second half good for 14 yards each to tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz and rookie wide receiver Will Fuller and he finished off the drive 6-for-7 The Bengals' bugaboo from last week, defensive penalties, also bit them again when Adam Jones gave them a first down on illegal contact and left end Carlos Dunlap gave them 15 yards on a face-mask penalty.
But unlike last week, this time the Bengals held it to a field goal when they forced Savage to get out of pocket and Novak tied it up at three with a 25-yard field goal six minutes into the second half.
With their two Pro Bowl targets missing against the NFL's second-best pass defense and their running game continuing to operate in quicksand, the Bengals defense and punter Kevin Huber stood up for their battered offense Saturday night in taking a 3-0 half-time lead over the Texans.
And the capacity crowd sniffing an AFC South title with a victory had to wait until the half's last play to get a score and it turned out to be Bullock's 43-yard field goal, a feat he couldn't repeat.
Huber punted after the Bengals' first six series, pinning the Texans inside the 20 three times and when Houston got the ball the Bengals buried Savage with Double A gap blitzes and a run defense that held Houston to 39 yards on 13 rushes in the half.
Savage, who got sacked on three straight snaps at one point, could complete just two of seven passes in the half for a brutal 13 yards and forcing the Texans' Shane Lechler to punt the first five times they had the ball.
Dalton's receivers had massive problems getting open against Houston's fleet secondary, but he did engineer an up-tempo 67-yard drive in the final 4:58 to finish the first half with 15 of 24 passing for 111 yards.
That's when he hit Boyd with the biggest play of the half for either side on a 21-yarder over the middle. Then he hit Uzomah for a six-yard gain on third-and-four to set up Bullock's kick.
The offense in the Ogbuehi era didn't get off to a good start. It was a three-and-out after rookie wide receiver Alex Erickson' big return to his own 41 on the opening kickoff.
Running back Jeremy Hill (six yards on four carries in the half), who was questionable with a knee injury, carried on the first two snaps and on second-and-eight he took a three-yard loss when the Bengals tried the power play pulling Ogbuehi and left guard Andrew Whitworth to the right. It was Whitworth's first start since the 2013 Wild Card Game and 2015 trip to the Pro Bowl as a left tackle.
It shaped up quickly to be that anticipated defensive battle as the Bengals threw around Savage like a bad name. On his first five snaps he was dumped three times and the sacks came on consecutive snaps on their way to four sacks in the game.
Bengals rotational defensive lineman Wallace Gilberry made his first appearance since getting hurt last month and he came up with 1.5 of the sacks, teaming up with end Michael Johnson for one from the inside and then getting one by himself on the edge. Pro Bowler Geno Atkins added the other one for his league-leading 8.5th sack among NFL interior linemen.
But the Bengals had to punt whether they had good field position or not. They started from their own 43 on the third series, but Dalton immediately got chased out of the pocket by defensive end Jadeveon Clowney getting past right tackle Jake Fisher and he had to throw it away.
When rookie wide receiver Cody Core failed to come back for the ball on cornerback A.J. Bouye's coverage, that set up third-and long and Dalton had time but overthrew Boyd past the first-down marker.
More of the same on the Bengals' fourth series as Hill could get absolutely no traction on the first two snaps. (Burkhead would take over for much of the second half and finish with 42 yards on 12 carries.) Hill got two and then lost two with ancient nose tackle Vince Wilfork knifing into the backfield and on third-and-10 the Texans were all over Dalton's pass to Core underneath to force the punt.
The Bengals were even worse running the ball than Houston, cobbling together a mere 21 yards on 12 carries in the half and getting just 50 on 19 carries for the game.
When the dust cleared in the first quarter, the Bengals had 32 yards and the Texans just 13.
Clearly Core, the sixth-rounder from Mississippi, was the stand-in for Green. The Bengals had a game plan with Green in it but he was inactive and Dalton went to the 6-3, 210-pound Core early and often, targeting Core 12 times in the first half and he struggled against the 6-0, 190-pound Bouye for just 35 yards on seven catches. On third-and-one, Dalton went play-action and tried to hit Core deep down the middle but Bouye was all over Core to knock it away.
Ogbuehi gave up Dalton's lone sack of the half on third down when Clowney bull-rushed Ogbuehi back into Dalton. Fisher gave up his one sack in the fourth quarter when linebacker Whitney Mercilus got around the edge on second down,
That forced Huber's eighth punt and another defensive stand to set up the last drive, featuring run stops by tackle Pat Sims and safety George Iloka.
PRE-GAME SNAPS: In an effort to find out if Cedric Ogbuehi is their left tackle of the future, the Bengals moved the left tackle of the present into left guard Saturday night when Andrew Whitworth moved inside for the first time since the 2013 Wild Card Game.
It wasn't the weekend's first move for the future.
On Saturday morning the Bengals ruled out wide receiver A.J. Green (hamstring) for the game against the Texans and it sounds like he's done for the year. They fear Green could tear it off the bone since there is a partial tendon tear high up on the hamstring and the surgery to re-attach it would put him in jeopardy to start 2017 on time.
Rookie Cody Core is getting his second start in place of Green. With left guard Clint Boling shelved, rookie Christian Westerman is getting the first game action. Rookie quarterback Jeff Driskel is inactive and rookie cornerback KeiVarae Russell, who has been active on special teams the past few weeks, sat down in favor of Westerman.
Everybody else had been ruled out Friday because of injury: WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict and tight ends Tyler Eifert and Tyler Kroft. Throw in those losses and the fact the Bengals had a game plan including Green and it looked like it was going to be an uphill fight against the NFL's second-best pass defense.
Like he has for the past three years, Vincent Rey got the start at WILL linebacker in place of Burfict.
The Texans deactivated running back Lamar Miller off their fifth-ranked rush offense.
Cincinnati Bengals travel to take on the Houston Texans in week 16 of the regular season 12/24/2016