CINCINNATI — The Bengals are missing out on the playoffs for the first time in six years because they couldn’t close out games — does that sound familiar?
The trend started with their most recent playoff appearance.
They reached the postseason for a club-record fifth season in a row and then blew a lead over Pittsburgh in the closing minute at Paul Brown Stadium last January.
Their 18-16 loss — set up by a fumble and two personal fouls — left them still without a playoff victory since the 1990 season.
The sixth-longest such drought continues now that the Bengals (5-8-1) have been eliminated from the race by a 24-20 loss to the Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday, when they blew a lead in the fourth quarter again.
All season long, it’s as if they had a hangover from the playoffs, unable to do what’s needed to pull out a close game at the end.
“That’s been our Achilles’ heel all season — not finishing in the fourth quarter,” running back Jeremy Hill said.
During their NFL-record five straight opening-round losses in the playoffs, the Bengals kept coming up short at the end of close games. That trend has been even more pronounced during this regular season. Their final flame-out was the season in a microcosm.
Down 20-9 at halftime, the Steelers held the Bengals to 38 total yards in the second half and did just enough on offense — aided by numerous Bengals penalties — to close it out.
Something’s missing for Cincinnati in the clutch moments.
“I don’t have the answers, but we have to find a way to finish these close games,” tight end Tyler Eifert said.
The coaching and the roster will come under scrutiny in the offseason. Coach Marvin Lewis is under contract through 2017. He got a one-year extension after last season’s playoff meltdown left him with the worst postseason coaching record in NFL history at 0-7.
The offense has struggled under first-year coordinator Ken Zampese, especially in the second half of games. Cincinnati has scored only 51 points in the fourth quarter this season, an average of 3.6 that is the worst in the NFL. The winless Cleveland Browns are second-to-last.
In the past six games, the Bengals have managed three field goals and a safety in the fourth quarter while going 2-4 and getting eliminated from contention.
The loss to Pittsburgh on Sunday was especially telling. The Steelers’ defense clamped down in the second half, and the Bengals weren’t able to figure out a way to move the ball.
Also, the defense got shoved around, allowing Pittsburgh to hold onto the ball for the final 5:53 with a 13-play drive.
“They came in after halftime and made some adjustments and they stopped us,” receiver Brandon LaFell said. “Every time we needed to get a first down, we couldn’t pick it up.”
The offensive line struggled much of the season — Andy Dalton was among the league leaders in getting sacked — and the starting defense was among the oldest in the league.
“We failed in a bunch of ways that hurt us,” Lewis said on Monday. “We didn’t protect the quarterback early on well enough. We gave up explosive plays on defense early in the season. All of those things we can look back to as to why we are where we are. We never got it all the way turned around enough.”
NOTES: The Bengals play at Houston (8-6) on Saturday night, a place where they’ve had some of their worst playoff moments. They lost playoff games in Houston to end their 2011 and 2012 seasons. The Texans came to Paul Brown Stadium last season and won 10-6, ending the Bengals’ 8-0 start. … Lewis said there’s a chance that WR A.J. Green could play. He has missed the past four games with a strained right hamstring. … Lewis won’t give his young players additional time with the Bengals out of contention. “My thought is to win these next two football games with the best players we can put out there to play,” Lewis said. “That’s what we owe to everybody. This isn’t junior high school.”
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