NEW ORLEANS (AP)Andy Dalton had an opportunity to stake a stronger claim on the New Orleans’ starting quarterback job.

But the Saints offense stalled on the final two possessions against Cincinnati on Sunday, allowing the Bengals to take a late lead and hold on for a 30-26 victory over New Orleans that could clear the way for Jameis Winston’s return against Arizona on Thursday night.

Winston has not played in three games while recovering from back and ankle injuries, but he was in uniform against the Bengals for the first time in that stretch.

”He’s not 100 percent healthy, Saints coach Dennis Allen said. ”We have a Thursday night game. Let’s get into study on that, see where he is at, and then we will go from there.”

Dalton’s record as a starter fell to 1-2 – same as Winston’s this season.

”I’m going to let D.A. (Allen) handle that whole situation,” Dalton said when asked if he expected to start at Arizona. ”So, we’ll see how that goes.”

For most of Sunday’s game, Dalton was in position to beat the team for which he started from 2011 to 2019.

But with the Saints leading 26-24 and likely needing a few first downs to run out the clock after taking over with 3:41 left, he presided over their first three-and-out since their opening series of the game, getting hit as he threw a third-down pass.

One play after a short punt, the Bengals took their first lead on Ja’Marr Chase’s 60-yard catch with 1:57 left.

Dalton moved the Saints to the Cincinnati 41 in the final minute before throwing three incompletions and getting sacked on third down.

His final attempt – deep down the sideline for Marquez Calloway on fourth-and-17 – was not close.

”We got to take pride in being at our best in those moments,” Dalton said. ”We weren’t today.”

Playing without top receivers Michael Thomas (foot), Jarvis Landry (ankle) and Chris Olave (concussion), Dalton went 17 of 32 for 162 yards. He led scoring drives on four consecutive possessions from early in the second quarter until early in the fourth, but the last three ended in field goals after the Saints got inside the Bengals 20.

Cincinnati, by contrast, had touchdowns on all three of its red zone possessions, with Joe Burrow throwing touchdown passes to running back Joe Mixon and Chase, and scrambling 19 yards for another one on the same field in which he led LSU to the national championship three seasons ago.

”We didn’t score enough touchdowns in the red zone and there lies the difference in the game,” Allen said. ”Of all the things that go on in the game, it came down to that one statistical category.”

New Orleans lost despite rushing for 228 yards and getting a 44-yard scoring run from Rashid Shaheed, who was activated from the practice squad a day before the game. It was the Saints’ second consecutive 200-plus-yard game on the ground, marking only the third time it happened since 1990.

Unlike against Seattle last week, the Saints could not hold the lead. They led 17-7 in the first half and 23-14 in the third quarter after getting field goals on back-to-back 14-play drives around halftime.

”You dominate the game from the beginning and basically self-destruct in the last three minutes,” said running back Mark Ingram, who had 46 yards on nine carries. ”You dominate the whole game and now you have a loss. We have to go back to the drawing board and get ready on the short week.”

With a win, the Saints would have pulled into a three-way tie for first place in the NFC South with Tampa Bay and Atlanta. The Saints felt it was in their grasp before the rough finish.

”Obviously, even with the red zone inefficiency, the offense has a chance to go out there and make sure they don’t get the ball back,” Ingram said. ”They get the ball back with great field position and we let an explosive go. Everyone’s hands are dirty at the end of the game.”

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