After a rough season, what's left for the Cincinnati Bengals to play for?

CINCINNATI -- If you listened to the players talk, you’d think it was Week 2 -- not Week 16. 

They talked about getting better. They talked about showing what kind of team they really are. And they talked a whole lot about putting good stuff on the tape, i.e., playing well individually.

The usual football-speak. 

But this has been an unusual four days with for the Bengals.

Sunday’s game was overshadowed by the ESPN report that Marvin Lewis had decided to the walk away from the team after this year. The game itself was a 34-7 blowout loss to the Minnesota Vikings. On Monday, you had Lewis’ tepid answers to questions about his future here.

“Sure,’’ he said quietly when asked whether he wanted to be back. 

After Tuesday’s day off, the players were back for a normal workweek.

But despite the football-speak, they know these are not normal times at Paul Brown Stadium.

At 5-9 with two games left -- starting on Sunday, Christmas Eve, against Detroit at Paul Brown Stadium -- and the coach in contract limbo, the players have to search inside for something to play for.

They say talk of Lewis’ future is nonfactor. 

“We haven’t had any validation of what it was,” defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. “At the end of the day, I’m a professional, and I have to get ready for a football game. I’ve got to put a product on the field. I don’t want to put any bad tape out there for my team or my family.”

Put good tape out there.

“What they put on tape is their resume,” Lewis said.

That doesn’t quite measure up for a team that went the playoffs five straight years before coming up short last year. 

“This is obviously hard,” quarterback Andy Dalton said. “I’ve won at every level I’ve been at. Right now is obviously not what we expected. This year has not been the year we wanted. We’ve got to finish this strong.”

That will be difficult. 

The Bengals will play Sunday with at least eight starters out. The first team offense has scored one touchdown in the last 10 quarters. The offense ranks last overall in the NFL. 

“Right now, we’re playing for each other,” cornerback Darqueze Dennard said. “We want to show everybody we’re not the team we’ve showed the last couple of weeks.”

All those injuries give new players a chance.

“This is an opportunity to show everybody you can play at this level,” Dennard said. “This is basically a job interview, not only for the Bengals but for the other 31 teams. Go out there and compete and put it on tape.”   

The tape from the last two weeks is not what the Bengals want out there. The Chicago Bears and Vikings outscored them 68-14. The blowouts came after two straight wins and a last-second loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. 

Things got really bad, really quickly.

“I can’t put my finger on it,” Dennard said. “It comes down to executing, communicating, especially on defense. Lack of communication. We’ve got some young guys. We’ve got to get everyone on board.”

Dalton and A.J. Green are both coming off back-to-back bad games -- that’s been rare in their time together. 

“Complacency can set in,” Dalton said. “That’s what you’ve got to fight at this point. We’ve got two games left. There’s still competition out there. We have still have to compete. 

“We want to put good stuff on tape. We want to play like we know we can.” 

There is it again: Put good stuff on tape. That’s what the season has come down to.

Lewis was asked about all this repeatedly. He continued to talk like Sunday was just another game. Not the penultimate one in what is likely to be his last season as coach in Cincinnati.

But Lewis loathes taking the long look at things or talking about what might have been.

Regrets?

“I regret we have not won enough football games,” Lewis said. “I haven’t gotten us in good enough position to win games. That’s my responsibility.”   

John Fay is a freelance sports columnist; this column represents his opinion. Contact him at johnfayman@aol.com.

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