CINCINNATI — When the Bengals need a big play, they crumble.
That’s been their offense’s theme all season, and it’s left them in tenuous position for a sixth straight playoff berth.
The fourth quarter has been their undoing.
The Bengals (3-5-1) had another late meltdown on Monday night, falling to the New York Giants 21-20 .
They entered the fourth quarter with a lead and wasted chances to put the game away, something that’s happened repeatedly during their season.
“You’ve got to be at your best in the fourth quarter, and we haven’t put it together,” Andy Dalton said on Wednesday. “We’ve been close.”
It’s been the most puzzling part of an offense that piles up the yards but not the points, especially when it matters most.
Dalton ranks 21st in fourth-quarter passer rating at 85.2. He’s thrown only three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, all of them when the opponents went soft on defense while finishing off a game with a lead. One came in Pittsburgh, the other two in Dallas.
Cincinnati has scored 40 points in the fourth quarter — its fewest in any quarter — and has been held to three points or fewer in six of its nine games.
Against the Giants, the Bengals had the ball five times after pulling ahead 20-14 midway through the third quarter and managed only 47 yards and three first downs — one by penalty — the rest of the way.
“The reality is we’ve been in games at the end and just haven’t been able to find plays,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said.
“I think it can go one of two ways: You start to develop into a team that doesn’t seem to find an answer, or you can turn it around and make it swing in the other direction.”
There’s not much time left to get it figured out. The defending AFC North champions trail Baltimore (5-4) and Pittsburgh (4-5) heading into the final stretch of the season.
They’ve got two games with Baltimore and they host the Steelers, so there’s still a chance to catch up, but only if they figure out how to do a better job of protecting Dalton.
He was sacked twice on the final series, when the Bengals’ line got overwhelmed . Dalton has been sacked 28 times, third-most in the NFL behind Indianapolis and Cleveland quarterbacks. The Bengals are on pace to allow 50 sacks for only the seventh time in franchise history.
The Bengals are one of the healthiest teams in the league, so that’s not been a factor in the diminished pass protection.
“It’s hard to say what’s the big difference for this team,” Dalton said. “The core is together.”
On Sunday, they host Buffalo (4-5), which leads the league with 30 sacks. A veteran line knows that it has to do better at giving Dalton time against the Bills .
“As you’ve been in this league longer, I think more of our guys are going to find that out that (opponents) start to figure you out, how you block and how you do things, and you’d better have an answer for it,” Whitworth said.
NOTES: Dalton was limited in practice on Wednesday with a sore throwing shoulder, but is expected to play against the Bills. The Bengals held a light workout coming off the Monday night game. … G Clint Boling (shoulder), TE Tyler Eifert (knee) and WR Bandon LaFell (knee) also were limited in the offense’s workouts. LB Rey Maualuga, who was inactive against the Giants because of an injured fibula, practiced on a limited basis. … DE Wallace Gilberry had a sore calf and didn’t fully practice following his first game since re-signing with Cincinnati.
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