AP Sports Writer
CINCINNATI — Ugly. Sloppy. Self-destructive. Ineffective. The Bengals seemed to be more bothered by how they lost their first game than by the loss itself.
They had a lot to do with the best start in franchise history finally hitting the wall.
Cincinnati played by far its worst all-around game on Monday night, resulting in a 10-6 loss to the Houston Texans in front of a less-than-capacity crowd at Paul Brown Stadium that was booing in the fourth quarter.
Yep. It was that ugly.
Defensive tackle Domata Peko said the players talked on the field as the clock ran out about how they’d let one slip away. “We can’t do that, especially here at home,” Peko said.
It was a strange night in many ways.
For one, an 8-0 team couldn’t fill its stadium for a Monday night game. The Bengals sold 61,381 tickets, leaving roughly 4,000 empty seats at Paul Brown Stadium. And the fans booed as the mishaps piled up.
• Andy Dalton was repeatedly off-target and finished with a passer rating of 61, his lowest of the season.
• Cincinnati had a season-low 256 yards overall.
• Tight end Tyler Eifert dropped two passes.
• The Bengals had nine penalties for 70 yards, repeatedly undercutting drives.
• Punter Kevin Huber had one kick travel only 22 yards.
• The defense allowed backup Texans quarterback T.J. Yates, who had signed with the club only a couple of weeks earlier, to lead a game-winning touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.
Even with all of that, they had a chance to pull it out. A.J. Green fumbled after making a catch for what would have been a first down at the Texans 23-yard line with 40 seconds to go. Two weeks earlier, they were in a similar predicament in Pittsburgh and Dalton threw a touchdown pass to Green for a 16-10 win.
“It was almost like Pittsburgh,” said Dalton, who was 22 of 38 for 197 yards with an interception and three sacks. “At the very end of that game, we put a drive together and we won. I felt that same vibe from everybody. But unfortunately, we didn’t hold onto the ball.”
That’s not all they didn’t do.
The running game was inadequate again, which has been a long-running concern. Dalton picked up 30 yards on five runs, some of them off designed plays. Running backs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill managed only 51 yards on 15 carries.
Overall, the Bengals ran for 73 yards, their lowest total of the season. Two games earlier, they ran for only 78 in Pittsburgh. It’s becoming a trend.
“It always hurts when you can’t execute and do what you game-plan to do,” Hill said. “It’s very disappointing.”
The Bengals have a short week to get ready for another big test. They play Sunday night at Arizona (7-2), where Carson Palmer will be waiting to try to knock off his former team. The Cardinals are tied with Minnesota for second-best record in the NFC.
“We can’t let there be any carry-over,” Dalton said. “That’s not the team we are, and we know what we’ve done to this point. This game doesn’t define our season. It doesn’t define anything. We’re still 8-1. We’re still leading the division. We know where we are.”
The Bengals are still in great shape to make a fifth straight playoff appearance. They’re up by 2½ games over second-place Pittsburgh in the AFC North. The Steelers have their bye this week. They have to come to Paul Brown Stadium for a game on Dec. 13.
New England (9-0) has the best record and potentially the top seed in the AFC. The Bengals have the second-best record and potentially the No. 2 seed, with Denver and ailing quarterback Peyton Manning third at 7-2. The Bengals play a Monday night game in Denver on Dec. 28.
“We know everything is still out in front of us, and we know we need to find a way to go to Arizona and put on a good show and perform like we feel we should,” linebacker A.J. Hawk said.