CINCINNATI (AP) — There's nothing unusual about the Cincinnati Bengals being 5-4 at this point of the season, but they may look back on their early struggles and Sunday's loss to visiting Houston as too much to overcome this year.
Cincinnati was 5-4 each of the past two years and rallied each time to win the AFC North and reach the conference title game. This year, the AFC North may be tougher than ever — the Bengals are in last place — and Cincinnati's remaining schedule includes rematches with Baltimore and Cleveland and two games against Pittsburgh.
In other words, the Bengals really could have used a win against rookie sensation C.J. Stroud and the Texans. Last year, they won their final 10 games to claim the division title, and a similar run over the remaining eight games this year would be hugely impressive.
The first step: traveling to face the first-place Ravens on Thursday night. Baltimore (7-3) is reeling after blowing a 31-17 fourth-quarter lead and losing at home to Cleveland.
The Bengals have their own missed opportunities to lament after Stroud led the Texans to a last-second field goal and a 30-27 victory. It might not be so painful if not for Cincinnati's 1-3 start to the season while quarterback Joe Burrow was limited by a calf injury. The Bengals responded with four straight wins, but the Ravens, Browns (6-3) and Steelers (6-3) have been more consistent.
Burrow said the Bengals will have to put this loss — he called it one of the most frustrating of his career — behind them fast.
“We have to,” Burrow said. “So, we have to get our bodies right. That’s the toughest part of these Thursday night games. It starts now.”
The Bengals squandered multiple offensive chances against Houston. The Texans' defense, one of the best in the league at stopping the run, held Cincinnati to 66 rushing yards, 20 of them on a single scramble by Burrow, who also was sacked four times.
It's hard to say a quarterback who threw for 347 yards and two touchdowns had an off day, but Burrow wasted opportunities to put the Bengals ahead. He threw interceptions — one in the end zone — on consecutive possessions in the fourth quarter.
On five straight drives stretching from late in the first quarter to the middle of the third, Burrow couldn't move the chains and the Bengals punted. Four of them were three-and-outs.
The Burrow-to-Ja'Marr Chase connection is intact, despite Chase missing some practice last week with a sore back. The two hooked up for a beautiful 64-yard touchdown in the third quarter that cut Houston's lead to 20-17.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The defense allowed too many explosive plays. The Texans had nine plays of 20 yards or more — including two on the final drive. Stroud passed for 356 yards, Noah Brown had 172 receiving yards, and Devin Singletary rushed for 150 yards and a touchdown.
Second-year cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt has four interceptions in five games. He picked off Stroud in the fourth quarter Sunday and was also among the Bengals' leaders with nine tackles.
Joe Mixon rushed for 46 yards on 11 carries, continuing a frustrating season for him and the Cincinnati offensive line. His season high was 87 yards in a win at San Francisco on Oct. 29.
Edge rusher Trey Hendrickson suffered a knee injury when Brown fell into him. There was no update Monday. The team's other starting edge rusher, Sam Hubbard, didn't play because of an ankle injury. WR Tee Higgins missed the game with a bothersome hamstring.
544 — Total yards by the Texans, the most allowed by Cincinnati this season.
After playing the Ravens Thursday, Cincinnati hosts the Steelers on Nov. 26.
“I think Thursday's game was already massive,” center Ted Karras said. “But we don't want to fall back to .500, playing arguably the top team in the conference. Thursday night. Prime time.”
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