CINCINNATI — With a game and its reputation on the line, the NFL’s top-ranked defense wasn’t going to let one get away in the closing minutes.
Especially not against a Colts team that has become stunningly adept at giving them away.
Cornerback Nate Clements blocked a late field goal try that would have tied the game, and Carlos Dunlap returned a fumble 35 yards for the clinching score Sunday, helping the Cincinnati Bengals hold on for a 27-17 victory that kept Indianapolis winless.
“That was nerve-racking,” Bengals receiver A.J. Green said. “I’m glad we have a bye week now. I need it for my heart.”
The Bengals (4-2) matched their victory total from last season and ended a seven-game losing streak against the Colts, who had never lost to Cincinnati with Peyton Manning at quarterback. It was the third week in a row that the Bengals broke a long losing streak against an opponent.
Now, they head into their bye week with their first three-game winning streak in two years.
“I feel we can be as good as we want to be,” Dunlap said. “We’ve got the guys in place to go as far as we want to go.”
The question for the Colts is how low they will go. Manning was on the sideline again Sunday, watching helplessly as the Colts fell to 0-6 for the fifth time in franchise history.
“Each game, we’re in it in the fourth quarter and something happens,” defensive back Jerraud Powers said. “Something dramatic happens.”
Curtis Painter rallied Indianapolis from a 20-7 deficit in the second half, getting the Colts in range for Adam Vinatieri’s 52-yard field goal try to tie with 5:38 left. Clements came around the end of the line and swatted it away.
That dramatic play was quickly followed by another. After the Bengals missed a field goal, Pierre Garcon was stripped of the ball as he tried to get extra yards after a catch, with the ball flying directly to Dunlap nearby.
“I have no clue what happened,” said Dunlap, who outran offensive linemen to reach the end zone. “I don’t know how it came out, but I saw it coming down to me.”
It was the second straight Bengals win capped by a defensive lineman celebrating in the end zone. Geno Atkins’ 10-yard fumble return completed a 30-20 victory in Jacksonville a week earlier.
Rookie quarterback Andy Dalton put together an impressive performance against the Colts’ hard-charging defense. He was 25 of 32 for 264 yards and one touchdown without a sack, completing 13 straight throws over one stretch.
“Coming into the season, we weren’t getting much credit,” Dalton said. “As a team, we have the attitude that we’re going to go out and prove everyone wrong. We’ve played well, and we’ve been in every game we’ve played.”
Clements got it going by stripping Dallas Clark of the ball on Painter’s first completion, setting up Dalton’s 11-yard touchdown pass to Green.
The Colts’ mess of an offense took two more hits Sunday.
Already missing Manning, the Colts also were without injured running back Joseph Addai and left tackle Anthony Castonzo. Indianapolis had to shuffle its line, moving Jeff Linkenbach from right to left tackle. Guard Ryan Diam, hobbled by an ankle injury, moved from guard to right tackle.
Not a good way to go against the NFL’s top-ranked defense.
Still, the Colts had a chance at the end.
Painter’s 1-yard touchdown pass to Clark cut it to 20-17 with 9:33 left. He would get them in range for the tying field goal, only to have Clements — a free agent acquisition who replaced Johnathan Joseph — slap it away. Dunlap’s fumble return with 2:22 to go ended Indy’s chances.
Painter was 23 of 34 for 188 yards with his first interception in 115 attempts.
Notes: Colts LB A.J. Edds left the game in the third quarter and was evaluated for a possible concussion. … Nugent’s miss from 43 yards into a swirling wind snapped his streak of 13 straight field goals to start the season. … It was the Bengals’ first blocked field goal since Antwan Odom blocked Kris Brown’s try on Oct. 18, 2009 against Houston.