CINCINNATI — It’s fitting that the Bengals' slim-to-none playoff hopes ended with a meltdown loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The game drove home the salient point about this franchise: Until the Bengals can compete with Pittsburgh, they are never going to be Super Bowl contenders.
The Steelers scored 15 unanswered points to beat the Bengals 24-20 before a crowd of 62,096 on a raw Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. The Steelers have won four straight against the Bengals, and Ben Roethlisberger is 12-2 at PBS.
This game wasn’t as shocking as the Wild Card meltdown of last season. It didn’t come suddenly. It was a slow, painful demise. But it was a winnable game against the Steelers that the Bengals didn’t win.
The Bengals officially are out of the playoffs for the first time in six years.
“This year has been different,” quarterback Andy Dalton said. “We haven’t been able to get over that hump and win these types of games. We’ve done that the last five years. It can be frustrating at times.”
Coach Marvin Lewis took responsibility for Sunday’s loss and the season malaise in general. But he hinted that his message did not get through.
“It is hard. I feel like I haven’t found the right buttons to push to get us where we need to be,” Lewis said. “I take credit for that, never going to blame somebody else. It’s my job to figure out why we don’t get it where it needs to be. We’ve been short.”
This season, of course, was lost before Sunday.
Beating the Steelers on a day when they had a chance to eliminate them would have been a ray of hope for the Bengals. But they couldn’t even win the consolation prize.
“I’m ticked,” cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said. “I hate losing. I thought we were better than that team.”
Sunday’s loss had some elements of the Wild Card loss. Adam Jones and Vontaze Burfict, the culprits in the Wild Card meltdown, both had personal foul penalties. The Bengals committed penalties on four straight plays during the drive that gave the Steelers the lead.
Jones bristled at the question about whether the Bengals kept their emotions in check.
“Next question,” Jones said. “Dumb question.”
Sunday’s game did have more to do with execution that emotion. The offense, which scored on all four drives of the first half, was abysmal in the second (four first downs, 38 yards)
“We score 20 points in the first half and none in the second,” Lewis said. “Unfortunately, that’s the story of a lot of our season — our inability to score points in the second half.”
Said running back Jeremy Hill: “We kept them in it. The second half, we didn’t do a thing to help our defense. That’s how you lose games.”
Early on Sunday, fans got a little false hope after a pass interference call put the Bengals at the Steelers 1-yard line. Hill had just run three straight times into the heart of the Steelers line and been stuffed. He was close enough on the third attempt that the Bengals challenged.
When the call was upheld, you figured fourth down would go the same way. Hill would be stopped, and the Bengal hopes crushed. In other words, the standard Bengals-Steelers storyline.
But Dalton got in on fourth down. Maybe this would be different.
The Bengals proceeded to a 20-6 lead. When the Steelers closed to 20-9 on the last play of the first half —
given the history of the series — you wondered if the 11-point halftime lead would hold up.
When Burfict threw Ben Roethlisberger to the ground right in front of an official for an unnecessary roughness penalty on the first drive of the second half, you thought: Here comes the meltdown.
Burfict’s boneheaded play got the Steelers to the Bengals 21, but the Bengals forced a fourth Chris Boswell field goal.
Boswell added his fifth field goal after a stalled Bengals drive. The sixth came after a Dalton interception.
It looked at that point that all the bend was going to break the Bengals unless the offense got back in some sort of rhythm. Instead, the Bengals went three-and-out — two Hill runs for a total of one yard and a Dalton incompletion.
The Bengal defense committed penalties on four straight plays on the next drive, setting up a 24-yard touchdown pass to Eli Rogers to give the Steelers a 24-20 lead.
Kirkpatrick, called for two of the four penalties, blamed the refs.
“They let them to do whatever they wanted, and we couldn’t defend ourselves. They let them tug. They let them pull through the routes. They won’t let us do the same. They won’t let us hand check back. At the end of the day, that’s where my frustration comes from,” Kirkpatrick said.
For Bengal fans, the frustration comes from playoff hopes being dashed by the Steelers again.
John Fay is a freelance sports columnist; this column represents his opinion. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.