To nobody's surprise, the Cincinnati Bengals defeated the Baltimore Colts today. The Bengals and a Memorial Stadium crowd of 23,598 were shocked, however, to find the outcome dependent on an off-target field-goal try with 10 seconds left.

Those who came expecting a mismatch were envisioning the excitement of overtime when Baltimore's Mike Wood lined up for a 40-yard attempt, but it was low and to the left to preserve a 20-17 victory for Cincinnati.

"It's a shame," said Wood, echoing the feeling of most observers of this gallant effort by a scorned, winless Baltimore team.

The Colts jumped into an early 7-0 lead with their first touchdown since September, fell behind, 20-10, after third-quarter doses of the usual adversity, then rallied to leave the 4-1 Bengals hanging on.

"It was a good effort, but we lost," said Coach Frank Kush, who added that he was "not much for moral victories."

Two short touchdown passes from quarterback Ken Anderson to tight end M.L. Harris, each on the play following a penalty against Baltimore, gave the Bengals their 20-10 margin by the first minute of the fourth quarter. Thereafter, Cincinnati made only one first down.

The Colts, needing a foot on fourth down at their 44 with 13 minutes left, chose to punt, drawing boos in their direction for the first time since quarterback Mike Pagel threw a poor pass on the game's first scrimmage play.

The tactic paid off, though, as Baltimore stopped the Bengals, took a poor Pat McInally punt at the Cincinnati 46 and scored in 10 plays. Tight end Pat Beach got the touchdown on a four-yard pass from Pagel two plays after Curtis Dickey's seven-yard dash around right end overcame a fourth and two at the 11.

Baltimore failed to capitalize on another short punt by McInally, although through controversial circumstances. On third and five from the Bengals' 40, Pagel threw toward flanker Ray Butler, who appeared to be bumped by cornerback Louis Breeden. While Kush approached world-record height in the high jump, no official opted to throw a flag.

"He just bumped me; it was pass interference," Butler insisted. "The referee said he didn't see it. They call it on us when we barely touch them and then they let that go."

Rohn Stark punted into the end zone and Cincinnati made one first down, using up considerable time before Leo Wisniewski sacked Anderson and the Colts got the ball at their 27 with 52 seconds left.

Pagel completed three of six passes, the last to split end Holden Smith for a 23-yard gain to the Cincinnati 22 with 10 seconds remaining. The Colts, forced to waste a timeout because of a third-period mixup by the goal-line defensive unit, used their last one at this stage.

Wood, who has been hampered by flu for almost three weeks, used the time to mat down dislodged clumps of turf on the churned-up field. Then he kicked the ball high, it looped badly to the left and the fans went home, but not before they gave the Colts a loud ovation.

"Usually it goes one-two-three, snap-hold-kick," Wood said. "This time the timing was off on the snap, the timing was off on the hold and it was a worthless kick. (Holder) Rohn (Stark) was handcuffed inside, between his legs. It was tough for him to put the ball down and manipulate it. I was coming pretty quick and I wasn't able to get underneath it."

The snapper just a shade off target was rookie Beach, who wound up with little reason to celebrate that first NFL touchdown. Earlier, Beach had been responsible for the nullification of a punt that bounced out at the Bengals' one, because he somehow started downfield too soon.

The Colts, who entered Bengals' territory on their first five possessions, outgained Cincinnati by 333 yards to 290, with a season-high 210 on the ground. Dickey collected 66 and each fullback, Randy McMillan and Cleveland Franklin, had 47. McMillan left early in the second half with a badly bruised thigh and was followed by cornerbacks Sidney Justin, cracked vertebra, and Larry Anderson, injured right ankle.

Cincinnati, which lost halfback Charles Alexander with a concussion after his first carry, depended heavily on fullback Pete Johnson, who carried 21 times for 90 yards.