Instead of a breakthrough, the Bengals got another AFC North beat-down.
A 24-17 loss to the injury-depleted Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night dropped the Bengals (3-4) into third place in the division. They wanted to show they were ready to compete for the division title, but instead fell to 0-6 against Pittsburgh and Baltimore the last two seasons.
And now, they're in trouble. They take a three-game losing streak into bye week.
"I thought we were very, very good at stinking up October and we need to do a cleanse," coach Marvin Lewis said Monday. "And the best thing going forward is to be better in November and December, which is the key because we kind of erased a lot of the positives that we had in September.
"We found a way to flush them down the toilet in October. So this week comes I think at a good time. We have an opportunity to fix a lot of the things that are ailing us right now, and that's what we've got to do."
Their biggest ailment is their inability to beat the Steelers and the Ravens. They had two prime-time chances this season, but lost to Baltimore 44-13 in the opener on Monday night and let a 14-3 lead over the injury-depleted Steelers slip away on Sunday night.
Their Pro Bowl connection on offense — Andy Dalton throwing to A.J. Green — managed only one completion all game. The defense got flattened by a Steelers team missing its top two running backs and two offensive linemen.
When they play a top team, the Bengals are only so-so.
"We were OK in the running game," offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said Monday. "OK is not good enough. We were OK in the pass. Andy played OK. A.J. played OK. OK will get you beat by the Steelers every time. Nobody played outstanding. That is what we have to have."
That's been their way the last two seasons. They earned a wild card berth last year despite not beating another playoff team. They went 9-7 by taking advantage of a favorable schedule, then lost to Houston in the opening round.
They've taken a step back this season, losing to some struggling teams as well.
"We have to win these ballgames," safety Chris Crocker said. "You only get so many opportunities. We have to beat a good team, and so far we haven't."
The most stunning part of Sunday's loss was how it slipped away.
The Bengals opened with their most impressive drive of the season. They came out determined to run against the NFL's fifth-ranked defense, and did it. BenJarvus Green-Ellis carried eight times for 44 yards, converting on third-and-3 and fourth-and-1 to keep it going.
The Bengals carried nine times for 49 yards on the drive, which took 8 minutes, 9 seconds. The rest of the game? They ran it 12 times for only 31 yards.
Cincinnati finished with 185 yards and ran only 49 plays to Pittsburgh's 70 plays and 431 yards.
"My performance was poor," Gruden said. "Our whole performance was poor. It was an embarrassment."
The Bengals hadn't lost three in a row since 2010, when they dropped 10 straight and finished 4-12 with receivers Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens. Coming out of the bye week, they have home games against Denver and the New York Giants.
Cincinnati closes the season at San Diego, home against Dallas, at Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, then home against the Ravens.
"It will be uphill from here on," cornerback Leon Hall said. "The schedule doesn't get any easier."
NOTES: Gruden said rookie WR Marvin Jones was expected to have a big role in the passing game until he suffered a knee injury on Pittsburgh's first kickoff. The Bengals already were short at receiver with Armon Binns inactive because of a sprained ankle. Lewis said Jones' injury isn't serious. ... Lewis said the Bengals don't plan any significant roster changes during the bye, but some players might get more playing time after the break based upon what's happened. He didn't give any specifics.
Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL