Cincinnati twice cut 10-point deficits down to three, including with less than four minutes left after Cam Taylor-Britt picked off Houston quarterback C.J. Stroud to put the Bengals into the redzone and set up a Joe Mixon 1-yard touchdown run. The offense got the ball back with 2:10 left but could only manage to tie the game at 27-all on an Evan McPherson field goal with 1:33 remaining, and Stroud completed a pair of 20-plus passes to move into field goal range for Ammendola’s game-winner as time expired.
Cincinnati (5-4) saw a four-game winning streak come to an end going into a key AFC North matchup Thursday at Baltimore.
“They’ve got explosive players,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “Their quarterback created (plays). A lot of those explosives were extended plays where he got outside the pocket and found the open guys.... Credit to them. They made the plays, and their guys did a good job.”
Houston (5-4) took a three-point lead into halftime on a 45-yard field goal from its new kicker, and the Texans built the cushion to 20-7 two drives into the second half before the Bengals forced their first three-and-out and began their comeback.
Cincinnati’s offense was struggling to find a rhythm after an encouraging touchdown drive to open the game, but the Bengals found new life in the third quarter with back-to-back scoring drives, including a 50-yard field goal from McPherson and a 64-yard touchdown pass from Joe Burrow to Ja’Marr Chase.
That made it a three-point game with 10 seconds left in the third quarter; however, the Texans responded with another big play to steal back the momentum. Stroud connected with Noah Brown on a 34-yard pass to set up Stroud’s 8-yard touchdown run on the ensuing drive to regain a 10-point lead, and the dagger seemed to fall when Burrow threw picks on back-to-back drives deep in Houston territory.
Taylor-Britt gave the Bengals a chance, though, with his fourth interception of the season, and the defense forced a three-and-out the next drive. Tyler Boyd dropped a touchdown pass on third down before McPherson’s tying field goal.
“We were down 10 with three(-plus) minutes left and they had the ball, so it was one of those things where we were just going to keep fighting, but Cam made a great play to get us on the 5-yard line..., and everyone continued to make plays,” Bengals wide receiver Trenton Irwin said. “We’ve just got to make one more play as a group ... and we didn’t.”
The Bengals brought into the game concerns about how Tee Higgins’ absence would impact the offense, especially while Chase was working through a sore back all week. Initially, it seemed they were going to be able to overcome those issues, as Burrow led the Bengals on their fifth straight opening drive resulting in a touchdown – without an official target for Chase or Boyd.
Tight end Tanner Hudson had five catches for 28 yards on the drive, and Irwin, who started in Higgins’ place, caught a 32-yard touchdown pass from Burrow for the 7-0 lead with 9:43 left in the first quarter.
The offense fizzled out after that. Chase wasn’t even a target for Burrow until the second quarter, and it quickly became evident how badly the Bengals need their top weapons. Instead, they relied on the defense to keep them in the game -- and that only worked for so long.
D.J. Reader and Mike Hilton both recovered recovered fumbles in the first half, deep in Bengals territory, but the Bengals ended the half on three consecutive three-and-outs, and Houston managed to gain the lead on Ammendola’s field goal with 10 seconds left before halftime. The Texans never trailed after that.
Burrow finished with 347 yards passing with help from big second-half performances from Chase (124 yards) and Boyd (117 yards). Devin Singletary finished with 150 yards rushing, and Stroud had 356 yards passing, including 172 yards to Brown. The Texans amassed 544 total yards.
While Cincinnati was missing Higgins (hamstring) and defensive end Sam Hubbard (ankle) due to injuries, the Texans hobbled into Paycor Stadium in ever worse shape in terms of injuries, including three starters among the seven players inactive because of injuries.
The Bengals will be looking to bounce back for their first AFC North victory on short rest.
“We’ve got to step it up, we’ve got to be better,” Burrow said. “Today wasn’t good enough, simple as that.”
Bengals at Ravens, 8:15 p.m., Amazon Prime, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7