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Stroud Outshines Burrow as Texans Send Bengals Back to the Drawing Board

I’m speechless. For about ten minutes there, I could hardly breathe. None of it makes any sense. Not a lick. Why does it feel like any time Tyler Boyd drops a pass, the Bengals lose? Am I still not over Super Bowl LVI? Pretty good bet, yeah.

I don’t know if we’ve seen a more embarrassing performance by the Bengals all season. Not the 24 - 3 drubbing by the Browns back in Week One. Not even the 27 - 3 beatdown by the Titans in Week Four. With Joe Burrow still mending, the Bengals had an excuse for those losses. Riding a four-game winning streak with calling-card wins against the San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills, the Bengals were supposedly “back.” Apparently, the Houston Texans missed that memo. Matt Ammendola's last-second, game-winning 38-yard field goal (the first of his career) sent the Texans into delirium as they won their second-consecutive game. The Bengals, meanwhile, were back to the drawing board.

You wouldn’t have guessed it after the Bengals first drive. As has become tradition in recent weeks, the Bengals won the toss, elected to receive the ball, and Burrow and company marched right down the field, culminating in a beauty of a throw from Burrow to Trenton Irwin for a 32-yard touchdown. They converted two third downs and a fourth down. Tanner Hudson continued his mini breakout by catching five passes just on that drive. They looked as crisp and confident as ever.

From there? Basically nothing. The Bengals punted on five of their next six drives before finally finding some life midway through the third quarter. Burrow got things started with a beautiful 17-yard scramble, followed by a strong 15-yard run by Joe Mixon. And naturally, a holding penalty and a third down sack killed that drive. The Bengals would end up settling for a long Evan McPherson field goal. A Bengals offense that had been almost perfect for two straight weeks couldn’t get out of its own way.

For the other side, Texans rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud was masterful. He looked in total command of the Texans offense, distributing to a number of different receivers and gutting the Bengals defense with chunk play after chunk play. He made mincemeat of a Bengals defense that may have been feeling itself a bit after a string of solid performances. After his last two games, in which he's thrown for – wait for it – 826 yards, it isn’t a stretch to say that Stroud is having the best season of any quarterback in the league right now. No rookie has won the MVP since Jim Brown back in 1957, but Stroud is going to give writers an awful lot to think about if he keeps up this pace for the rest of the year.

The brightest moment of the day for the Bengals was a beautiful, vintage bomb from Burrow to Ja’Marr Chase in the waning moments of the third quarter. The score cut the Texans lead to three, and it felt like the momentum had meaningfully shifted in favor of the Bengals. Six plays later, with Stroud spelling out O-H-I-O in the endzone after an 8-yard touchdown run that capped off a 75-yard drive, that momentum had all but disappeared.

The Texans hadn’t had a 100-yard rusher in 17 games before meeting Cincinnati’s defense on Sunday. Devin Singletary had a career-high 128 rushing yards with 8:10 remaining in the fourth quarter, finishing with 150 and a touchdown. The Texans ran play-action rollout after play-action rollout, and time after time Stroud found Noah Brown, who had a day of his own with a career-best 172 yards receiving.

It wasn’t all perfect for the Texans, though. Two fumbles in the red zone took points off the board. Stroud threw a late interception to Cam Taylor-Britt that gave the Bengals late life and an opportunity to take the lead. Sadly, Boyd dropped his second pass of the game in the end zone, forcing the Bengals to settle for a game-tying field goal instead of taking a four-point lead. Stroud, however, was undeterred, and five plays later he had the Texans in position for the game winner.

It’s a massive setback for a Bengals team that seemed like it had finally righted the ship following a shaky start to the season. The loss to the Texans gives the Bengals three losses already in the conference, and with Cleveland and Pittsburgh both picking up wins, the Bengals will settle solidly into last place in the division – at least for another week or two. Fortunately, with a Thursday Night matchup against the Baltimore Ravens coming up in four days, the Bengals won’t have much time to sulk.

The defense needs a long look in the mirror. Lou Anarumo is indisputably one of the best defensive coordinators in the NFL, but he just got his butt handed to him by a rookie QB and a first-year offensive coordinator. After handling the Niners and the Bills, we thought the Bengals were back. Now, it’s the fans who are back – back to wondering if this Bengals team still has the goods to make another deep postseason run.

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