Bengals blow best chance for playoff win, now changes ahead

CINCINNATI (AP) Two days later, they're just as stunned as when the Steelers' kick cleared the uprights.

''It still feels like a bad dream,'' defensive end Carlos Dunlap said.

More like a nightmare they won't shake for a long time.

The Bengals have earned their pedigree for coming apart in the biggest games, with their latest meltdown immediately turning into a defining moment.

An 18-16 loss to Pittsburgh on Saturday night extended one of the longest streaks of playoff futility in NFL history and shook the team to its foundation.

Coach Marvin Lewis will be back for a 14th season despite his 0-7 record in the playoffs, the most such losses to start a career.

A bunch of starters will leave as free agents. Everyone who stays will have to get over a self-destructive loss that cost the coaches, the players and the franchise so much credibility.

They matched the club record by going 12-4 this past regular season, but lost their cool and became unglued in a big game once again.

''It hurts, it stings, and it's going to for a long time,'' Lewis said. ''And then we're going to go and play Pittsburgh again next year and it's all going to come up again unfortunately and we're going to have to work our way through it.''

How are they going to do that? All that they know is that they're worn down by all of it.

''We know how to get there,'' cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said. ''We need to figure out what to do when we get there. We've got to reload and not only get back to it, but we've got to get through it. It's going to be an even more difficult task.''

Some things to watch as they try to dig themselves out of another one-and-out postseason:

CAN'T ESCAPE HISTORY: Kirkpatrick is right. They've lost so many big games that it's become part of their DNA. This was their best chance - they had the fewest significant injuries in the league during the season - and led a playoff game with 1:50 to go and still couldn't pull it off. Their 25 years without a playoff win is the sixth-longest drought in NFL history - Washington is next at 28.

LEWIS ON THE SPOT: In most other cities, the head coach would be fired after a playoff meltdown left them 0-7. Not in Cincinnati, where owner Mike Brown is loyal to his staff. But at some point, staying the course becomes a losing proposition. The Bengals had three crowds of only 57,000 at 65,000-seat Paul Brown Stadium, even though they were having one of their best seasons. And Lewis' control of the team is in question after linebacker Vontaze Burfict and cornerback Adam ''Pacman'' Jones got penalties that set up Pittsburgh's winning field goal.

''Once they go across that line (onto the field), there's not much I can do from there unless I go out on the field, which I'm not allowed to,'' Lewis said.

COULD BE LEAVING: Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is one of the head coaching candidates most in demand. Among the Bengals' potential free agents are right tackle Andre Smith, safeties Reggie Nelson and George Iloka, cornerbacks Leon Hall and Jones, defensive end Wallace Gilberry, and receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu.

''We'll do a good job of getting guys back here and signed,'' Lewis said. ''I think our guys know they have a good home here. I think we'll be OK that way. There's a lot of pieces in place.''

QUARTERBACKS SET: Andy Dalton broke his right thumb on Dec. 13 and didn't play again. Lewis said he's expected to make a full recovery and participate in his usual offseason workouts. The Bengals feel comfortable at the quarterback spot after AJ McCarron played well in his first NFL starts, going 2-2. He got them the late lead on Saturday before Jeremy Hill's fumble and the defense's implosion helped the Steelers rally. McCarron has two more years on his deal.

DEFENSE: The defense set a franchise record for fewest points allowed during the season, but couldn't close out the biggest game on Saturday. Playing with an injured passing shoulder, Ben Roethlisberger converted a third-down play and a fourth-down play before the two Bengals penalties gave them their final push into field-goal range. With so many potential free agents on defense, it'll look a lot different next season, which is partly why the playoff meltdown hurt so much.

''That game should have been over with,'' Jones said.


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