CINCINNATI - After the Packers split their first two preseason games, the primary question heading into Monday night at Cincinnati was whether they would play like the team that was drubbed in San Diego or the one that routed Atlanta at home.
Unfortunately, it looked like San Diego again, only worse.
Playing a sloppy game in which they struggled to run the ball, turned it over on their first two possessions, and couldn't get their defense off the field on third down, the Packers were blown out 48-17 by the defending AFC North champion Bengals in front of 65,614 fans at Paul Brown Stadium.
"We didn't perform tonight the way we would have liked," Head Coach Mike McCarthy said after the game. "The videotape tells the true story. We'll take a long look at that tomorrow."
When they do, the Packers will see they averaged a meager 2.8 yards on 36 rushing attempts, effectively stifling their offense. Meanwhile the Bengals were enjoying the return of quarterback Carson Palmer, who was playing in his first game since suffering a horrific knee injury in the opening round of the AFC playoffs last season.
Using primarily a no-huddle offense, Palmer completed 9 of 14 passes, including 5 of 6 on third down, for 140 yards and three TDs in the first half as the Bengals took advantage of nearly every Packers' mistake to surge to a 31-0 lead.
"Obviously we're pleased with the play we saw from Carson," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "He dropped back, he rolled out, he got hit a few times, he had a chance to run the ball. He looked very good, very sharp."
The same couldn't be said for the Packers, who knew they had to protect the ball against the Bengals' ball-hawking defense. But instead Green Bay added to Cincinnati's impressive turnover total, which already stood at seven through the first two preseason games.
On the game's opening possession, quarterback Brett Favre appeared to hit fullback Vonta Leach with his arm while attempting to throw, and the ball flew out. Cincinnati safety Dexter Jackson pounced on it in the open field and returned it 45 yards for a touchdown, recovering a fumble of his own along the way.
On the ensuing possession, Favre's deep pass over the middle on third-and-15 deflected off Donald Driver's hands and into Madieu Williams'. His 29-yard return set up a 38-yard Shayne Graham field goal, the first of five straight scoring possessions for the Bengals.
"The alarms that went off were self-inflicted wounds," McCarthy said. "We gave up 10 points on turnovers to start the game. When you're playing on the road with everything going against you, you have to come out and play more solid than that. We need to get that fixed."
A third futile drive for the Packers ended with a poor Jon Ryan punt and a holding penalty that gave the Bengals a first down on Green Bay's 38-yard line. Seven plays later Cincinnati had a 17-0 lead on a 6-yard TD pass from Palmer to tight end Reggie Kelly.
The Packers' struggles with the running game were most prominent on their next drive, as they needed two runs by Ahman Green to convert a third-and-2, and then Najeh Davenport was stuffed for no gain on third-and-1.
Favre wasn't able to pick up much of the offensive slack, either, completing 7 of 15 passes for 99 yards in the first half. He was sacked three times.
"It was disappointing from a team standpoint," Green said. "Together as a team we didn't play too well. The first couple of series were rough and we dug ourselves a hole. It was tough to dig out of."
Palmer, on the other hand, kept rolling along. On a 13-play, 90-yard touchdown drive, he converted a pair of third-and-longs with passes to Tab Perry and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who then turned a short hook route into a 33-yard TD when he broke a tackle attempt by Charles Woodson and outran a dive by Marquand Manuel along the sideline.
"It's just fun to get the ball into the hands of the playmakers we have and to watch them run," Palmer said.
Palmer completed his impressive first half with a seven-play, 65-yard TD drive, capped by a 15-yard pass to Perry to make it 31-0.
"He didn't miss a beat. He hasn't lost a thing," Bengals offensive tackle Willie Anderson said of Palmer, the former Heisman Trophy winner. "He's our leader, and he's back."
Statistically, in many respects the Packers reverted back to their disappointing preseason opener. While Cincinnati converted nine of 12 on third down (75 percent) through the first three quarters, the Packers were just three of 11 (27 percent) over that same span, and came up on the short end in sacks (3-0) and turnovers (2-0).
"You have to be able to get off the field in third-down situations, and we haven't done that yet," said Woodson, who had a particularly rough game and confessed to as much afterwards. "That's something we're going to have to put a lot of emphasis on these next couple weeks going into our first regular-season game."
The Packers finally got on the board in the final two minutes of the first half, as Favre converted a fourth-and-10 with a 35-yard pass to Driver. That set up a 17-yard TD toss, also to Driver, who made a nice diving catch and kept his feet in bounds.
After recovering an onside kick, the Bengals inserted Anthony Wright at quarterback and drove 24 yards to set up a 34-yard field goal by Graham with 2 seconds left in the half to make it 34-7.
In the third quarter, the Packers got a 30-yard field goal by Dave Rayner, as Favre completed five passes for 63 yards. But a couple of dropped balls in the red zone killed the drive, and Favre finished his night 12 of 25 for 162 yards.
The Bengals added another TD on a 25-yard pass from Wright to Bennie Brazell late in the third quarter, boosting their lead to 41-10.
The Packers got their second touchdown after a weather delay midway through the fourth quarter with the help of a 50-yard pass interference penalty on the Bengals. Samkon Gado took it in from 2 yards out.
Cincinnati closed the scoring with a 28-yard TD pass from third-string quarterback Doug Johnson to receiver Reggie McNeal with 2:35 left in the game.
"I didn't see us giving up at all, but they definitely came and gave us our whippin' tonight," rookie offensive guard Tony Moll said. "It's something we need to look past and move on and learn from it and make our corrections."
That may be the good news, that the Packers don't have any time to dwell on the 31-point loss. The preseason finale at home against Tennessee is Friday, giving both the veterans and young players a chance to move past this game quickly.
"We need to grow as a football team," McCarthy said. "We had an opportunity tonight to play on a national stage, play an excellent opponent on the road, weather conditions, just a lot of things that create adversity for you, and that's what you need to overcome as a football team.
"So whether they're young or old, wherever they're at in the pecking order, they need to come together as a team, and tonight did not come out as we would have liked."