AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- A look at Cincinnati Bengals players who were "up" and those who were "down" in Sunday's 34-31 loss to the Arizona Cardinals:


Andy Dalton: Yes, night games have been the bane of the Bengals quarterback's existence throughout his career, but he -- like he's been doing in recent prime-time games -- shook free of the old narrative about his play at night. Going 22-for-39 with 315 yards and two touchdowns, Dalton performed about as well as he could have, given the circumstances. He was playing behind a porous offensive line; one that gave up four sacks. His decision-making also was sound all evening as he routinely made the right pre-snap changes to get plays to open up, whether they were screen passes or deep throws downfield. Even his decision to throw to A.J. Green in the end zone on a last-minute third-and-2 was the right one. He had a favorable matchup and tried to exploit it.

Jeremy Hill: No, Hill's overall production wasn't all that good, as his 45 yards on 13 carries will attest. But he did at key times showcase some of the wiggle and power that has made him such a valued piece of the Bengals' offense in the past year. It was primarily on his two rushing touchdowns (two yards and one yard) Hill trended back onto the positive side of the ledger. Those two scores ended up giving his fantasy owners 16 points under ESPN's standard scoring system. It's been five weeks since he's even had a double-digit scoring output.

Tyler Eifert: Just after dropping away the Bengals' hopes in a Monday night loss to Houston, Eifert trended back positively Sunday night. He only caught three passes, but he made them count. Two of the receptions resulted in touchdowns, including a 10-yard snag that gave Cincinnati life in the fourth quarter.


Bengals' secondary: It's hard to consider the Bengals' secondary as "down" since two of its key backup pieces suffered mid-game injuries, and a starter missed the game due to his own aches. Still, the players themselves believe they missed out on executing in the clutch, particularly on the final drive of the game when the defense gave up three straight long passes to open the series. Safety George Iloka reiterated that he has long vouched for the depth in the Bengals' secondary. That depth just didn't show up even after Adam Jones, Darqueze Dennard and Shawn Williams all fought through respective injuries.

Bengals' offensive line: As mentioned above, Dalton was on the ground four times Sunday. With the Cardinals regularly assaulting the Bengals with extra pressure, the offensive line struggled to keep Dalton both upright and free to sit in the pocket for long. Running back Giovani Bernard also missed a block on one sack.

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Want a headline from Sunday night's 34-31 Cincinnati Bengals loss at Arizona? Here, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick has you covered.

"We didn't finish," the fourth-year defender said. "That is pretty much the bottom line and the headline. We didn't finish."

Safety Derron SmithAP Photo/Ross D. FranklinThe Bengals defense gave up 70 yards in less than a minute to allow the Cardinals to kick the game-winning field goal.

Mark that down as two straight weeks the Bengals have lamented the way they closed out a game. With the playoffs coming into even greater focus, and a high seeding still very well within reach, they must figure out a way to get their sudden end-of-game problem corrected. The best way to snap out of this recent tailspin of back-to-back losses is to finish all 60 minutes next week against the St. Louis Rams.

Early in the season, being able to finish game wasn't an issue at all. To go along with the Bengals' fast starts -- they entered this week with five opening-possession touchdowns; tied with the Patriots for the most in the NFL -- they were closing games well, too. Remember, it was in the first half of the season against Baltimore, Seattle and Pittsburgh when they won games thanks to fourth-quarter comeback bids conducted by Andy Dalton and the offense, and a series of late holds by the defense.

For eight games, the Bengals played a string of complete, well-rounded games, albeit with a few minor issues to iron out along the way.

They have walked away from their last two, though, seeing end-of-game struggles on alternating sides of the ball.

Only five days before this latest loss they couldn't quite finish a late-game charge against the Houston Texans because receiver AJ Green fumbled with about 40 seconds remaining on a hopeful game-winning touchdown drive.

This time around, it was on the Bengals' defense to preserve a tie that was reached going into the final minute of regulation. If the defense could have held like it did so many fourth-quarter drives before, it would have forced the game into overtime, where the Bengals' believed their offense would sustain the late-game momentum it had built up.

That didn't happen. Three straight passes in a minute and six seconds from Carson Palmer -- 19, 18 and 20 yards -- took the Cardinals from their own 16 and all the way into range for Chandler Catanzaro's game-winning 32-yard field goal.

"I haven't even processed what happened," Bengals safety George Iloka said, adding the entire final-drive sequence happened far too quickly for him to comprehend.

To Dalton's credit, he and the offense did what it couldn't against Houston. It responded to a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit by driving down field and bringing the Bengals to within inches of a go-ahead touchdown. Although Green caught a pass that deflected off the Cardinals cornerback covering him with about a minute left in the game, there was question about whether his feet were in bounds as he kicked past the pylon. The play wasn't reviewed, and the Bengals ended up being given a third-down incompletion that resulted in the game-tying field goal.

Comebacks are nice, but the Bengals believe wins are better.

"There is no moral victory because we have high expectations for ourselves, man," Rey said. "For us to fight back and be in it in the end, and then we as a defense let them drive on us to score, we've got to do a better job. But it's definitely not the end of the world for us. We've got six more games, at least. It's just tough. I know it's going to be a long flight home."

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- If this was supposed to be a Super Bowl 50 preview, then buckle up. This is about to be a fun postseason.

In a game that had so many juicy storylines coming in -- the Bengals' prime-time woes (now 8-18 since 2003) and and the revenge nature of Carson Palmer's second game against his old team -- it was a last-second, game-winning field goal that did in the Cincinnati Bengals during their 34-31 loss at University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday night.

While Andy Dalton always bears the brunt of the blame in the Bengals' prime-time defeats, this one certainly isn't on him. Blame a porous defense on the game's final drive, which put the Arizona Cardinals in position to kick the 32-yard field goal with two seconds remaining on the game clock. Only one minute and two seconds before, the Bengals had pushed through with a drive for the ages from Dalton that brought them from an 10-point fourth-quarter deficit into a late-game tie.

Drives like that one are what will be needed from Dalton as the Bengals move forward and try to rebound after a second straight disappointing loss.

Andy DaltonJoe Camporeale/USA TODAY SportsAndy Dalton threw for 315 yards and two touchdowns in the Bengals' loss at Arizona.

What it means: The Bengals are now 8-2 and still very much in control of the AFC North. With the Pittsburgh Steelers off this week, they only lost a half-game in the standings. Cincinnati now has to quickly rebound next Sunday, when it hosts St. Louis at home. It will be the first time in three weeks the Bengals have played a game earlier than 7 p.m. ET.

What were they thinking? Although the Bengals ultimately scored on their first possession of the fourth quarter, there was a serious "what were they thinking?" moment when offensive coordinator Hue Jackson had receiver Mohamed Sanu line up behind center on a pivotal down with the game clock running down. Dalton had just been sacked for an 11-yard loss the play before, so the Bengals were facing a second-and-21. With the safeties dropping, Sanu would have had zones deep to throw into, but there was one problem: He couldn't get the play off before the clock ran down for a delay of game. It could have been a costly penalty. Two 10-yard-plus passes and a fourth-down conversion ultimately preceded Jeremy Hill's 1-yard touchdown run.

One reason to be excited: These two words have to make a Bengals fan smile these days: Geno Atkins. The Bengals defensive tackle has been playing well all season, but he really showed up Sunday night. He made his most visible contributions in the first half, with a sack and another tackle for loss. All night he put pressure on Palmer, making it slightly more difficult to regularly exploit weaknesses in the Bengals' hobbled secondary. Although Palmer still got his yards, he probably could have had even more had it not been for the pressure Atkins applied, and the subsequent response from defensive end Michael Johnson, who also was in Arizona's backfield often. Atkins finished with four tackles.

One reason to panic: You'll read a little more about it in the "Ouch" section, but it's clear that injuries are beginning to take their toll on the Bengals' defensive backfield. Those injuries certainly could make things challenging for Cincinnati as the season continues. Also of concern: The Bengals, injured or not, gave up a few long passes and were gashed for big plays in the secondary due to missed tackles.

Fantasy watch: While the Bengals still didn't get from from Jeremy Hill the type of performance they have spent all season waiting for, he did end up giving his fantasy owners something to cheer about. The second-year running back scored two touchdowns. The scores were a lot like others he has had this season -- they came from inside goal-line territory.

Ouch: Remember when the Bengals were fully healthy and had all members of their 53-man roster consistently practicing? Yeah, that's starting to seem like a long time ago. Just when things looked the most bleak for the Bengals' secondary after cornerback Adam Jones was announced inactive with a foot injury, Cincinnati lost two more defensive backs during the game. Jones' replacement, Darqueze Dennard, was run from the contest with a right shoulder injury he sustained while attempting to tackle Cardinals receiver John Brown in the end zone during a third-quarter touchdown pass. It was announced that he had X-rays, but no results were made available. Along with Dennard, backup safety Shawn Williams sustained a second-half ankle injury that forced him from the game. This will be an important week for the Bengals' secondary as it tries to get as many of the injured defensive backs at closer to full health.

PHOENIX -- Jeremy Hill remembers well the first time he saw Tyrann Mathieu go through a live practice -- and he remembers being blown away.

"He just has a different speed to him," said Hill, the Cincinnati Bengals running back who played college ball briefly with Mathieu at LSU. "He might not be the fastest guy out there, but how fast he plays the game of football, it's unreal. It's unmatched."

Mathieu's football speed will be tested by Hill's Bengals on Sunday night when they visit the Arizona Cardinals in one of the biggest games of the week. A case could be made that with Cincinnati (8-1) and Arizona (7-2) near the top of their respective conferences, this nationally televised game could be a Super Bowl 50 preview.

Tyrann MathieuAP Photo/Rick ScuteriThe Bengals know Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu is a dangerous defensive playmaker.

Games with that type of pregame acclaim often hinge on the success of playmakers like Mathieu. When the Bengals' offensive players break huddles Sunday, they certainly will want to know exactly where on the field the Cardinals safety is. If they lose track of him, it could be costly to their offense.

"He's a [Troy] Polamalu-type guy to where you've got to know where he is because he can game-change you in one play," Hill said. "He makes plays, he has a knack for the football and he loves playing. He just has that tenacious mentality every time he steps out there. I have a lot of respect for him."

Hill wasn't the only one to praise Mathieu this week. Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson understands the impact Mathieu can have versus the pass.

"He's a student of the game," Jackson said. "He has tremendous ball skills, and he's a very good blitzer, more so than what people think. Because of his size you'd think, 'Oh my gosh, this guy shouldn't be doing this.' But he does it as well as anybody. They have a talented defense, and we've played a lot of good defensive football teams. We don't run from that."

The Bengals have already faced three of the top 13 defenses in the league -- including a 419-yard effort in an overtime win over the second-ranked Seattle Seahawks -- before going against Arizona's third-ranked unit Sunday. Also on the horizon are games against Denver (first) and St. Louis (sixth).

Mathieu has had a real impact on Arizona's defense throughout his three-year career, but this may end up being the best season the former third-round pick has had. Not only has he been fully healthy, but he already has a single-season career-high three interceptions. He's also forced a fumble, recorded a sack and registered 52 tackles. At his current pace, he will shatter his single-season tackles mark of 67, set his rookie year.

Something Mathieu and his Arizona teammates in the defensive backfield do well is pick off passes after one of them has deflected the ball into the air. Fellow safety Rashad Johnson leads the unit with four total interceptions, while Mathieu has three. Combined, the Cardinals have 14 interceptions, tied for the most in the league. Three of their pickoffs have been returned for touchdowns.

Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, who was intercepted once last week against Houston, will try to keep from giving Mathieu and the other Cardinals a chance for more interceptions.

"You can control it to a certain extent with accuracy and putting the ball in the right spot," Dalton said. "Our guys have to make tough, contested catches. You can control it from the standpoint of knowing when to throw it in there, and when you do throw it, put it in the right spot."

The right spot is anywhere far away from Mathieu.

CINCINNATI -- As Tyler Eifert tries to rebound from arguably the worst game of his young NFL career, he might be wise to lean this week on a lesson he learned from former Cincinnati Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham.

"He came in here and we were always having fun," Eifert said, reflecting on his former teammate. "Good game, bad game, whatever, he always kept it light. Which, for me as a rookie, you're like, 'Oh my gosh. I'm in the NFL now, and this is so serious.' Meetings were so serious and long, and he always kept it light. It can be a grind, and it's good to keep that attitude throughout the year."

This, of all weeks, is a good time for Eifert to maintain that approach.

Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesTyler Eifert is looking to put Mondays rough outing behind him.

With a three-drop performance in Monday night's loss to the Texans, Eifert would like to prove his hands are better than that Sunday night when he faces Gresham's new team, the Arizona Cardinals. By keeping his approach loose and light, Eifert can keep doubt from creeping into his mind the way it did during the last game.

"You drop one, you try to forget about it and your mind ... every time the ball's coming to you after you're thinking: 'Don't drop it,'" Eifert said just after Monday's 10-6 loss.

Much of what has been said in the past 10 months about Gresham's controversial exit from Cincinnati revolved around the feathers he ruffled around these parts. His nonchalance when it came to deciding not to play through a couple of late-season injuries rankled some around the team and made it easy for him to receive a cold shoulder when free agency rolled around in March. Although Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said as late as last February that the franchise hadn't ruled out re-signing Gresham, the writing seemed to be on the wall.

Once the Bengals drafted two tight ends while Gresham rehabbed from springtime back surgery, there was no reason to believe he was coming back.

In July, the Cardinals signed him, thanks to a vote of confidence from quarterback Carson Palmer, another embattled ex-Bengal who played with Gresham in Cincinnati during Gresham's rookie season.

"He just kind of fell into our lap," Palmer said. "He didn't get to us until late and he wasn't fully healthy when he got to us so he missed out on so much time. But these last three, four, five games, he's really coming along and doing exactly what we expect.

"He's been a great addition for us."

Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson was complimentary of Gresham's time with the Bengals.

"We ran the ball extremely well with him," Jackson said. "Everybody appreciated what he did here and everybody's glad to see him land on his feet and then get a great situation with a quarterback he knows and with a team that I'm sure he's very proud to be on. We're happy for him."

Without Gresham in the mix, Eifert -- who missed all but eight plays last season with shoulder and elbow injuries -- has emerged as a true offensive weapon for the Bengals. His 40 catches rank second on the team and his nine touchdown receptions pace the NFL.

"Me and Jermaine were pretty close when he was here," Eifert said. "He took care of me, kind of took me under his wing and sort of looked out for me. ... So I'm excited to see him."

Jeremy Hill Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesYards have been harder to come by for Bengals running back Jeremy Hill this season than they were when he was a rookie.

CINCINNATI -- Yes, Hue Jackson thinks about the Cincinnati Bengals' running game, but he's not devoting as much time to worrying about it as you might believe.

That's because the Bengals' offensive coordinator feels he has broader concerns that go deeper than how successful his team is at running the football.

"We're trying to win games. It's not about running the ball. Please," Jackson said at the end of a testier-than-normal exchange with reporters. "That's not the only thing we do. We throw the ball, too. You asked me about running the ball and you said, 'Are we going to jump-start the running game?' And I said, 'We're running the ball.' So I don't understand what it is that you guys are looking for."

An issue of concern to team beat reporters much of the season, it's clear Jackson is done discussing the perception that his running game has been woeful.

It's been evident the Bengals' 13th-ranked rushing attack has had trouble displaying the consistency it showed last season. Namely, the attempts running back Jeremy Hill has had this season haven't been as productive as they were a year ago.

Hill, who rushed for 1,124 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry as a rookie last season, has just 359 yards rushing and a 3.2 yards-per-carry average this season on exactly half the carries he received in 2014.

He isn't too troubled by that and neither is Jackson. Both contend the only numbers drawing their attention are those in the "win" and "loss" column.

"This year for us it's been a lot of game flow," Hill said. "When our passing game is hitting like that, you have to stay with the hot hand. If Andy's [Dalton] hitting down the field, you can't take it out of his hands. You've got to let him continue to make throws down the field and make plays. We understand that as running backs. We understand that as an offense that every game you're not going to have 150 yards rushing. Some games you're going to have to get it through the air."

Indeed, Dalton is having the best year of his career quarterbacking the Bengals. That primarily has been because of what has opened for him down the field with Tyler Eifert, Marvin Jones and A.J. Green all healthy and regular pass-catching contributors. It is worth pointing out that Hill's five rushing touchdowns -- all but one of which have come from inside the opponent's 10-yard line -- are the second-highest number of scores for a Bengals skill position player, excluding quarterbacks. Only Eifert has more, with nine touchdown receptions.

Clearly, the goal-line rushing game has been working.

But Cincinnati hasn't been as successful in the rest of the field. Chalk it up to having already faced five of the league's top 11 rush defenses. A date with the sixth, the league's No. 4 rush defense, is coming up Sunday night at University of Phoenix Stadium. Arizona is allowing an average of 92.3 yards on the ground.

"We've played a lot of great rush defenses this year," Hill said. "We understand that, and the smarter OCs in this league, they don't get stubborn and try to force it down. You've got to take what the defense is giving you, and we've done that this year. Again, this week we'll try to establish the run, but if it's not happening that way, you've got to make throws down the field and you've got to back those guys up a little bit. Hue's been doing a great job of that all year, and I don't expect it to change."

Very few in the Queen City probably want to hear this right now, but their Cincinnati Bengals (8-1) still have a Super Bowl buzz about them, despite Monday night's loss to the Houston Texans.

With a win over the Arizona Cardinals (7-2) on Sunday night at University of Phoenix Stadium, the buzz would persist and the overwhelming support the Bengals had before their undefeated season was ruined would likely return.

Of course, people in the Southwest believe their squad will rudely burst Who Dey Nation's bubble. Fresh off a banner road win at Seattle, the Cardinals are flying high.

Between their records and the history their personnel have (Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer was Bengals coach Marvin Lewis' first draft pick, taken first overall in 2003), this game won't be short on story lines. That said, how about another one: Could this prime-time game be a Super Bowl 50 preview?

ESPN Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and Bengals reporter Coley Harvey debate:

Harvey: Although pessimistic Bengals fans may beg to differ following Monday night's loss to Houston, this game still feels like a Super Bowl preview. Why do you think this game sets up that way, Josh?

Weinfuss: Both these teams are built similarly. They have good, big-armed quarterbacks, they have game-changing receivers and they have running backs who can control tempo and the clock. Both teams can score a lot of points in a hurry, but their defenses aren't as stout as they have been in the past. Yet, that offensive firepower on both sides may just be enough to propel them into early February.

Coley, the Bengals have certainly been close lately, earning four straight wild-card berths, but why do you think this year's Bengals are built to make a run at the Super Bowl?

Harvey: It's because they possess -- Monday's offensive inefficiency aside -- those very traits you just outlined. Andy Dalton may have struggled for one game, but he has been consistently solid the rest of the year. Pair him with playmakers like A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, Tyler Eifert, Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, and you have a balanced offensive attack. But that aside, the real key is Cincinnati's defense. The Bengals are pacing the league in fewest points allowed per game (16.9) and goal-line efficiency. They also are the third-best defense in the red zone. It's been in large part because of the defense's play late in games that the Bengals' offense has had so many chances to come back in the fourth quarter this season. Had it not been for a last-minute fumble by Green on Monday, Cincinnati may have walked off with a win.

Josh, Palmer isn't the only former first-round Bengals draft pick playing in Arizona these days. What impact has Jermaine Gresham had on the Cardinals' offense?

Weinfuss: Gresham has just finally begun settling into his role with the Cardinals. He spent training camp finishing his recovery from a back injury and during the first month of the season, he was still finding his football legs and learning the Cardinals' intricate offense. Coming in off the street and trying to pick up this scheme quickly is no easy task, but, fortunately for Gresham, he had Palmer to help ease the transition. With the Cardinals, Gresham has been more of a blocking tight end than a pass-catching one. He's played in every game but Gresham is on pace for the lowest output of his career.

There's no question Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson will follow Green wherever he goes Sunday night. He's only allowed 17 receptions this season on 35 targets. What makes you think Green can have a big game against Peterson?

Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton USA TODAY Sports, Getty ImagesCarson Palmer and Andy Dalton both lead dynamic offenses that have a legitimate shot at making a Super Bowl run.

Harvey: The steel-cutting look in Green's eyes Monday night after his fumble makes me believe he will rebound. It's a look his teammates have seen occasionally over the years. They consider "Angry" A.J. different from the normal guy. "Angry" A.J. has a bark that isn't often seen. Rest assured, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson will be in Green's ear all week trying to make sure the bark and bite remain. Green certainly will have his hands full with Peterson. But with a healthy Eifert, Green has gotten more single coverage this season than last year. So when teams clamp down on Green -- like the Texans did on Monday -- it opens opportunities for other pass-catchers like Eifert, who dropped three passes against Houston. If he catches even two of them, we're probably talking about the 9-0 Bengals right now.

OK, bud, last one. How have the Cardinals done it on offense this year (league-leaders in Total QBR, yards per game and yards per play)?

Weinfuss: There are two main reasons why the Cardinals have been playing as well as they have: Palmer and Chris Johnson. Palmer is in his third season with Bruce Arians' scheme, which means he's had three years to learn the detailed intricacies of the offense, which is widely considered one of the most complex in the league. And since Palmer understands it so well, he's able to coach players on the field. Johnson said playing with Palmer is like having an offensive coordinator on the field, too. But Johnson has been nearly as valuable to the offense this year. He has single-handedly improved Arizona's running game from 3.29 yards per carry last season to 4.37 this year. A better rushing offense has forced defenses to pay attention to the ground game and opens up the passing game.

People here in the desert don't know much about Cincinnati besides its chili and Dalton's red hair. What's made this team able to run out to an 8-1 start and, for that matter, be successful the last four years?

Harvey: People in the River Valley don't know much about the desert except for golf and In-N-Out (first stop I'm making this weekend). Even with his comparably lackluster showing Monday, Dalton still has to be credited for the work he has done. He's been a big key to the Bengals' regular season success since 2011. Say what you will about the postseason, but it's hard to fathom where the Bengals would be if any one of the other young quarterbacks of his era were leading them. The defense has had an impact, too, with ageless wonder Adam Jones, large, athletic pass-rushers like Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson and Geno Atkins, and the enforcer Vontaze Burfict factoring heavily over the

CINCINNATI -- A look at Cincinnati Bengals players who were "up" and those who were "down" in Monday night's 10-6 loss to the Houston Texans:


Dre Kirkpatrick: After disappointing games the past couple weeks, the cornerback flashed throughout Monday's game. He played his best in the first half, when he, Adam Jones and Darqueze Dennard combined to hold Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins to zero catches. Kirkpatrick broke up three passes and recorded three tackles, too.

Adam Jones: Yes, Jones did give up the game's only touchdown, and yes, he did tell reporters after the game to put the blame for the loss squarely at his feet. But the cornerback played a solid game. He had five tackles and was in perfect position on Hopkins' touchdown reception. The wideout simply made a great catch, falling down along the left sideline in the end zone with a surprising left-handed grab.

George Iloka/Reggie Nelson: The Bengals' starting safeties contributed 15 combined tackles. Iloka led all Bengals defenders with eight, and Nelson broke up a pair of passes.


Tyler Eifert: The tight end has been dominating much of the season -- he brought a league-leading nine touchdown catches into Week 10 -- but he simply didn't show up Monday. He dropped three passes, and even admitted that after the first drop, he was thinking too hard about not having a second or third drop. On seven targets, Eifert finished with just 26 receiving yards.

Andy Dalton: If there was a "neutral" place on our weekly "up," "down" list that's probably where Dalton would belong. He wasn't dreadful by any stretch, and his numbers were certainly impacted by Eifert's drops and a couple of other moments of miscommunication. Still, his 197 yards were his fewest this season, and he threw one interception and very nearly threw two others. His decision-making wasn't quite as crisp as it had been in earlier games. Again, Dalton has played much worse, but he wasn't at the level he has been much of the season.

A.J. Green: There's really only one play that drops Green into "down" territory for this week. Had he been able to hold on to the ball on his last-minute fourth-down play, he might have been tabbed the hero of this game instead of the goat. Like the Bengals' other receivers, Green wasn't overly effective. He caught five passes for 67 yards, and of course couldn't get into the end zone.

AP Photo/John MinchilloThe Bengals knew Cedric Ogbuehi's rookie year would be a wash because of his December ACL injury.

The Cincinnati Bengals had nine selections in the 2015 draft. Here's a closer look at how their picks have contributed:

2015 draft class:

Starters: Tyler Kroft (1 start).

On the cusp: One could argue that in time, each of the Bengals' draft picks eventually could be a starter. Each has talent that Bengals coaches would like to use at some point in the next few years. The big question for each individual player regarding their "on the cusp" status revolves around when they could make an impact. There isn't a uniform timeline to that. Much of it depends upon what happens with current veterans and soon-to-be free agents at the draft picks' positions. Barring injuries, the Bengals aren't projecting true starting time for any of their draft picks this season. That said, Cedric Ogbuehi, Jake Fisher, Kroft and Paul Dawson are probably the closest at seeing legitimate playing time. But Ogbuehi is just returning from a college ACL injury, and like Fisher, Ogbuehi still has Andrew Whitworth, Andre Smith and Eric Winston above him at offensive tackle. Kroft won't steal snaps from Tyler Eifert, but he is certainly in the mix as the No. 2 tight end. Dawson is a couple of injuries away from getting time at linebacker.

Undrafted free agents they like: Bengals coaches like all the post-draft players they were able to sign. Since training camp, they have probably been highest on defensive tackle DeShawn Williams. He and fourth-round pick Marcus Hardison were all over opposing backfields in the preseason games they played. The rookies feed well off each other off the field. That appeared to show up on it. Pass-catchers Jake Kumerow and Matt Lengel provided solid depth at receiver and tight end during training camp, linebacker Trevor Roach held up well in the preseason both on defense and special teams and running back Terrell Watson was a physical runner. Each player is on the practice squad.

My take on class: B+. I gave the Bengals high marks just after the draft, and I continue to hold the class in that same regard. That's primarily because there hasn't been much that has changed with respect to the draft picks, since so few of them have had a chance to actually play. That's not a surprise. We knew that would be the case. Eyes will be on Ogbuehi over these next couple of weeks as he practices for the first time following last December's injury. It also will be interesting to see how Fisher and Kroft -- the two draft picks who have gotten the most consistent action -- hold up as blockers while the season continues. Fisher has had his good moments, but he also has had issues with penalties. Josh Shaw has been a solid special-teams contributor, picking up where Dre Kirkpatrick left off at the gunner position. The better Shaw, Dawson and Derron Smith play on special teams, the more opportunities they could earn following free agency after this season. Receiver Mario Alford's absence may seem perplexing, but with a healthy stable of wideouts, the Bengals have had no need to activate him so far. This is only giving the seventh-round pick more time to get comfortable with the playbook and improve his punt-return ability.

Mel Kiper's take on class: The Bengals win a special prize for having seen essentially nothing from their rookie class -- and that's just fine. The roster is in great shape, and the Bengals were drafting for next year as much as anything, adding O-line depth, linebacker and safety help in particular. Fisher and Ogbuehi are O-lineman with Round 1 talent that are essentially redshirting.

CINCINNATI -- Pass the Sharpie. The Cincinnati Bengals' run of perfection is no more.

The NFL is now down to two undefeated teams with the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers.

When we look back on the Bengals' 10-6 loss to the Houston Texans, though, it will be easy to pin the Bengals' first defeat this season on quarterback Andy Dalton and credit him with another prime-time flop. Sure, he did have arguably his worst prime-time outing in about a year, but he certainly wasn't alone in the poor play offensively.

Andy DaltonAP Photo/Frank VictoresAndy Dalton threw an interception and was sacked three times by the Houston Texans defense.

Tight end Tyler Eifert dropped three passes -- two of which could have turned into touchdowns -- and Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green fumbled the ball at the end of a fourth-down conversion. It was a reminder of the fumble he had late in the Bengals' loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in last year's regular-season finale.

That defeat spelled doom for a Bengals team that went on to lose in the first round of the playoffs a week later. How will this Bengals team respond to this rare loss?

What it means: The 1972 Miami Dolphins don't have to worry about the Bengals breaking their streak. In addition to that, this loss also means the Bengals have their work cut out for them, particularly with next week's game at Arizona looming. After losing to a team with a losing record, the Bengals travel to play a third straight prime-time game and this time against a team that's 7-2.

One reason to be excited: Be encouraged by cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick's play, Bengals fans. The fourth-year defender was seemingly everywhere, picking up where he left off in his last Monday night game. It was against Denver last December on Monday night when he had two interceptions to preserve a key late-season win. While he didn't create any takeaways against Houston, he did deflect three passes, record three tackles and draw an early offensive pass interference penalty. In the first half, he and fellow corners Adam Jones and Darqueze Dennard combined to hold DeAndre Hopkins to zero catches.

One reason to panic: Cincinnati's offense ran into a serious roadblock against Houston. The unit simply couldn't move the ball. If this becomes a trend, the Bengals could be in trouble ahead of Sunday night's upcoming game at Arizona, where it will face a defense that's overall better than the Texans'. In all but one of the Bengals' first eight games, their offense amassed more than 300 yards. The one game in which the Bengals didn't have that many yards -- at Pittsburgh two weeks ago -- they were just 4 yards short. Against the Texans, Cincinnati collected 256 yards of offense. Before its final drive, the unit had gained only 36 yards in the second half. This was the first game the Bengals didn't score a touchdown.

Fantasy watch: Eifert seemed to become a must-start fantasy option after his three-touchdown performance in last week's win over the Browns. He ended up earning his owners 23 points in that game. Against a Texans defense that had struggled at times this season covering tight ends, Eifert provided his owners an abysmal two points. It appeared he had trouble getting into a rhythm with Dalton throughout the night. Near the end of the first half, Eifert dropped a crucial third-down pass that at the very least would have put the Bengals into red zone territory. It stalled out a drive that had the potential to conclude in the end zone. Instead, the Bengals settled for a field goal. At the start of the fourth quarter, a wide-open Eifert dove short of an errant Dalton pass. The tight end had just pulled free from the player covering him and would have had a relatively easy path to the end zone. Later in the quarter, he dropped another catchable pass across the middle on first down.

Ouch: As they've done for much of the year, the Bengals escaped Monday's game without any major injury issues. Only Jones provided a scare when he went down in the second quarter following a collision on a pass in the middle of the field. After lying on his back for a couple of moments as trainers rushed over, Jones was helped to the sideline, where he was diagnosed with a shoulder injury. Television cameras appeared to show him take a blow to the back of the head from the knee of another player. Jones ended up returning to the game on the next drive and finished with five

CINCINNATI -- It was with about 11 minutes left in Monday night's game when the Paul Brown Stadium faithful began getting a little restless.

Boos from Cincinnati Bengals fans started ringing out as quarterback Andy Dalton struggled to move the offense. A three-and-out, the product of a pair of incomplete passes, brought the chorus of disapproval. It was after Dalton's errant third-down pass to running back Giovani Bernard that fans became most restless.

Cincinnati had just 11 yards of offense in the third quarter.

Naturally, the boos were noticeable because the Bengals entered the game against the Texans with an 8-0 record. It was their best start to a season in franchise history.

DeAndre HopkinsAaron Doster/USA TODAY SportsDarqueze Dennard helped keep the Texans out of the end zone in the first half by breaking up this pass to DeAndre Hopkins.

CINCINNATI -- Paul Guenther contends there is only one statistic he pays attention to on a regular basis: The amount of points his defense gives up per game.

The Cincinnati Bengals' defensive coordinator had to be pleased with what he saw from his unit ahead of Monday night's game against the Houston Texans. Through the first eight games, the Bengals ranked second in points allowed, giving up an average of 17.8 points per game. Only the Minnesota Vikings, led by Guenther's ex-boss, former Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, ranked higher.

But even if he claims to be opposed to advanced metrics, Guenther had to like the following number: 44.4.

Early in Monday's game, that number actually tipped a little lower, thanks to a timely stop from Guenther's defense.

The number above represented the percentage of touchdowns the Bengals had allowed before Monday's game per the number of goal-to-go attempts in which they had faced opposing offenses. With a 44.4 percent efficiency, the Bengals effectively brought into Week 10 the league's second-best goal-line defense.

Late in the second quarter, that stout goal-line defense was put to the test.

After a 15-yard scramble from Texans quarterback Brian Hoyer put Houston onto the Bengals' 6, Cincinnati's defense needed to respond with a stand that kept the Texans out of the end zone.

It did. With Adam Jones out of the game briefly due to a rather controversial injury -- the Bengals temporarily declared him out of the game with a shoulder injury, but television cameras appeared to show him take a hard shot to the back of his head earlier on the drive -- backup cornerback Darqueze Dennard came in and made an immediate impact. With the Texans in second-and-goal from the 1, Dennard and Vontaze Burfict teamed up for a stop on Alfred Blue that caused him to lose three yards.

A play later, Dennard had solid coverage on receiver DeAndre Hopkins, as a Hoyer pass sailed out of bounds. The Bengals had held for a field goal.

All season, the Bengals have had a knack for occasionally bending on defense but not breaking when it matters most. It's a big reason why they came into this game with an undefeated record. That stingy goal-line and red-zone defense was a key reason behind the Bengals' ability to routinely get its offense back onto the field during games in which they had to come from behind to win. It's how they beat Pittsburgh late, and how they were able to prevent the Seahawks from extending a fourth-quarter lead in an eventual come-from-behind victory.

The Cincinnati Bengals (8-0), playing in their second straight prime time game, will be looking to remain perfect when they host the Houston Texans (3-5) at 8:30 p.m. ET Monday.

Here are some things to watch for during the game:

Why watch? It appears Andy Dalton has finally put to rest the narrative that he doesn't show up when the lights are brightest. Dalton threw three touchdown passes -- all to tight end Tyler Eifert -- in the Bengals' Thursday night win over the Browns in Week 9 to improve his prime time record to 4-7. After winning just two night games through his first three seasons, Dalton has now helped the Bengals take two of their past three. A Monday night win over the Broncos last season in Week 16 preceded a loss at Pittsburgh. Can Dalton continue his recent strong play on national television? You'll certainly want to tune in and find out. Another solid prime-time outing could give Dalton added confidence and motivation going into Arizona next Sunday, when the Bengals play their third night game in as many weeks. Through his first eight career prime-time games, Dalton had a 52.9 completion percentage with seven touchdown passes and eight interceptions. In the three since, he has completed 72.3 percent of his passes and thrown seven touchdowns and three interceptions. Aside from tuning in to see if the Bengals can stay undefeated, you'll want to pay attention to the better and improved Dalton.

Andy DaltonDavid Kohl/USA Today SportsAndy Dalton will get another chance to shine under the lights after last week's strong performance against the Browns.

Keep your eyes peeled ... on third downs when the Bengals offense is on the field. Dalton and Co. have done a nice job of extending drives this season, claiming the league's No. 4 ranking in third-down offense. They are converting 45.2 percent of their third downs. Only New England, New Orleans and Arizona have better third-down conversion ratings. What will make that down of added significance Monday is the fact that Houston ranks first in third-down defense. The Texans get opposing offenses off the field better than any other team, allowing just 26.7 percent of third downs to turn into first downs. On a conference call last week with Bengals media, Texans coach Bill O'Brien talked around his team's defensive success on third down, saying they were kind of feast-or-famine numbers. "There have been games we've played really well on third down, and there are other games where teams haven't got to third down and they've gotten first downs on first and second down," O'Brien said. Regardless, when the Texans have been good in third-down scenarios, they have been very good. Naturally, the better the Bengals can perform on the pivotal down Monday, the better their chances of winning.

Did you know? Were you aware that in their 57 meetings against the old Houston Oilers, the Bengals drew a perfect split? Before the Oilers franchise moved to Tennessee in 1997 and ultimately became the present-day Titans (clearing the way for the Texans to be established as a new team in 2002), they had drawn a 28-28-1 record in all-time meetings with the Bengals. The Texans lead their all-time series with the Bengals, 5-4.


CINCINNATI -- The numbers said that Andy Dalton had struggled over the years with consistently passing deep downfield.

The numbers are saying something different now.

Part of the undefeated Cincinnati Bengals' success this season has hinged upon their quarterback, who isn't only putting up some career-best statistics when throwing more than 15 yards deep, he's also posting some of the league's top figures.

Why is that?

He and his coaches believe the answer is simple: the Bengals are finally healthy at the receiver and tight end positions.

"Having everybody back is nice," Dalton said.

Added offensive coordinator Hue Jackson: "We have good players. It's nothing magical. It's just practice, attention to detail and execution. When the plays are there, we've made them, thus far. We've just got to continue to make them."

Andy DaltonAaron Doster/USA TODAY SportsBengals QB Andy Dalton leads the NFL in completion percentage and yards per pass attempt on throws 15 yards or more downfield.

Ahead of Monday night's game against the Texans, the Bengals will be relying on their receivers to make even more plays as they attempt to move the ball downfield versus a defense that features a stout front seven. With the athletic and powerful J.J. Watt powering Houston's pass rush, the Bengals will need to throw quickly if they want to keep their quarterback upright.

Perhaps then Dalton won't be throwing deep all that often Monday. Still, whether he goes long or not, the success he has had doing that this year can't be ignored.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Dalton entered Week 10 ranking first in completion percentage (58.8) and yards per pass attempt (18.3) on throws 15 yards or more downfield. His first four years in the league were a different story. Dalton ranked 30th out of 46 qualifying quarterbacks in completion percentage (40.3) on throws of that same distance.

Last season, when several Bengals pass-catchers missed significant time because of injuries, Dalton posted the worst deep-passing numbers of his career. He completed just 32.6 percent of his passes thrown 15 yards or more downfield, and collected only 920 yards on them. Halfway through this season, Dalton has already collected 932 yards on those throws.

"We were damn good two years ago, too," quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese pointed out.

Dalton in 2013 had a career-high 13 touchdowns on passes thrown 15 yards or more downfield.

"There's ebbs and flows sometimes, and we're back going again," Zampese said. "He's doing a good job with ball placement. Guys are flying around and running like crazy and getting open. It's all meshing together."

While Dalton attributes most of his downfield success to the health of A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard -- all key pass-catchers who missed multiple games last season to injuries, he also is quick to point out he's more consistently mechanically sound than he was a year ago.

"Our guys are making plays and I'm putting the ball in some better spots for them to make the play," Dalton said. "We've gotten some good looks to take some shots [deep] and I'm throwing the ball more accurately."

Credit some of that heightened accuracy to attention he has given to his passing technique. While he and noted throwing coaches Tom House and Adam Dedeaux didn't change anything in Dalton's throwing motion when they worked with him this past offseason, they are still giving him tips and pointers regularly.

Dalton has made it a priority to speak with them after every game this season to see what their extra sets of eyes notice from afar. Their advice, coupled with the health of his receivers, has Dalton feeling good about his deep-passing game.