5 takeaways from Bengals’ win over Texans

The Cincinnati Bengals have struggled to finish out close games this season, but they overcame multiple hurdles Sunday to beat the Houston Texans in a back and forth battle on the road.

Playing without their No. 1 quarterback, receiver and running back, the Bengals rallied in the final six minutes to beat the Texans 37-31, collecting their first road win since 2018 and stringing together wins for the first time under second-year coach Zac Taylor.

The Bengals’ defense struggled in the second half but stepped up in crunch time to force a turnover with 1:28 left to protect a three-point lead and Austin Seibert tacked on a field goal with 18 seconds left to finish off the scoring. Houston had time for two plays but ended up pushed out of bounds after a series of laterals as time expired.

Here are five takeaways from the win:

1. More validation

The Bengals (4-10-1) haven’t been as bad as their record appears, even though they’ve failed to put together a lot of complete games, but the two wins in six days this week provides some further validation for Taylor.

To this point, they just haven’t been able to finish out games, and after losing Joe Burrow to a season-ending knee injury in Week 11, the offense needed some time to recover. It wasn’t a perfect way to win Sunday but Cincinnati produced 540 yards of offense and scored 37 points – both highs under Taylor. The Bengals previously had failed to get wins in six games that were decided by five points or less this season, including a tie at Philadelphia, and they were 0-12-1 in games decided by seven points or less since Taylor took over.

“Just tells you everything you have to know about the character and resolve of this football team,” Taylor said. “Like I told them, we practiced in 10-degree weather on Christmas day to come down and play a game in Houston. Not one guy, I didn’t hear one guy complain about it. They all knew we had to get some work done before we had to come play this big game. Just couldn’t be prouder of the work they put here in Week 16. We’re out of the playoff hunt. It’s easy for guys to check out right now, and we haven’t had a single player do it. Just proud to coach these guys.”

Cincinnati, a team that will miss the playoffs for a fifth straight season, isn’t playing for draft positioning but rather momentum for 2021. The Bengals went from potentially picking third to picking fifth with the win Sunday. They conclude with Baltimore at home Jan. 3.

2. Allen’s big day

Brandon Allen, coming back from a knee injury that sidelined him against Pittsburgh, had the best game of his career and potentially earned consideration for the backup spot in 2021 behind Burrow. He completed 78.1 percent of his passes (29 of 37) for 371 yards and a rating of 126.5 – all career highs – and led an offense that scored points on every drive the second half.

The Bengals started off the game with a number of screens and quick outside passes before Allen started ripping deep passes in the third quarter. With the game tied at 17, Allen then put together arguably his most impressive drive in four starts as Burrow’s replacement to put the Bengals back in the lead. He converted a third-down pass to A.J. Green, connected with Alex Erickson up the middle for a 42-yard gain and then found Tee Higgins in the corner of the end zone for a 20-yard touchdown pass, making it 24-17 with 5:46 left in the third quarter.

After Houston took its first lead at 31-27 with 6:15 left, Allen conducted a 10-play drive capped by Samaje Perine’s go-ahead touchdown run with 1:57 remaining.

Allen said the game was his best but he’s also “had a couple bad games too” so he would take this one with a grain of salt. He credited Ryan Finley for stepping up Monday and giving him some momentum to work with in his return.

“I think him getting that win against the Steelers really gave guys such a boost of confidence, and then even this week, going into this week, I think there was such a high level of confidence that we can beat any team we go play,” Allen said. “I think we’re such a connected team in that locker room, and we kind of keep all that other outside noise right where it is, outside.”

3. Defense recovers

The defense fell apart in the second half, giving up touchdowns on three consecutive drives, but after the Bengals regained the lead just after the two-minute warning, they got the ball right back on a turnover.

Sam Hubbard stripped Watson while his arm was back ready to make a throw, and Margus Hunt recovered the fumble in mid-air to seal the win for Cincinnati, which then added a field goal and allowed Houston just two more plays.

“It wasn’t our best game defensively, but that’s how it is in the NFL when you play a great player like (Watson),” Hubbard said. “Just to come away with that first road win is an amazing feeling. And to be able to do that for my team, I’m really happy right now.”

The game ended with Houston throwing a bunch of laterals and eventually getting pushed out of bounds by Darius Phillips as time expired.

4. Houston’s offensive surge

The defense’s struggles seemed to coincide with William Jackson’s exit late in the second quarter with a concussion caused by a collision with Jessie Bates trying to make a play on a Deshaun Watson pass that Hubbard impacted.

Watson and David Johnson shredded the Bengals throughout the second half to help Houston score touchdowns on three consecutive drives and take its first lead of the game. Johnson rushed for 109 yards on eight carries in the second half and scored one rushing and one receiving touchdown. Watson finished with 324 yards passing and three touchdowns.

“Will’s (Jackson III) a good corner, and Deshaun Watson is one of the best football players I’ve ever seen in my lifetime,” Taylor said. “I knew that going into this game. I knew it was going to be difficult. There was going to be moments on defense where it was going to be tough. He’s done it to a lot of people over the last several years. So, losing the starting corner at that point was tough, because this guy can extend plays and get first downs with his feet, and he can throw it a mile.”

Hubbard said some of the run fits were off and the tackling just needed to be better. That was especially evident when Johnson ran up the middle for a 48-yard gain.

5. Backups stepping up

Allen wasn’t the only backup stepping up Sunday. Erickson finished with 88 yards receiving while starting in place of Tyler Boyd, who is out with a concussion, and Perine proved a lift to the running game. Perine finished with 95 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries, including a 46-yard score to open the second half and the game-winner.

“That last touchdown, we knew it was crunch time,” Perine said. “We knew what we had to do. Those guys told in the huddle if you see the hole, hit it. We’re going to do what we can, and the rest is up to you. That’s been like that for the last two or three weeks. Those guys just going in constantly every day and working, working on technique just to get better and just to open up holes for us. They’ve done that.”

The offense didn’t have any turnovers and Allen wasn’t sacked once – even with J.J. Watt on the other side -- as the offensive line of Fred Johnson, Xavier Su’a-Filo, Trey Hopkins, Quinton Spain and Bobby Hart proved a good combination for a second straight game.

Giovani Bernard added 65 yards rushing and 66 yards receiving, as the running backs were getting a lot of targets early. Tight end Drew Sample had his first NFL touchdown to get the Bengals on the board in the first quarter for a 7-0 lead.

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