Fading Bengals need help in a lot of ways

The Bengals suddenly need a lot of help — stopping the pass, selling tickets and staying in the playoff chase.

Cincinnati was one of the NFL's biggest surprises in the first half of the season, going 6-2 while taking advantage of a favorable schedule. They've faced some of the league's top teams in the last five weeks and lost all but one game.

A 20-19 loss to the Houston Texans on Sunday before another small crowd at Paul Brown Stadium dropped them to 7-6 and out of the playoff picture for now.

They need assistance to get to the postseason.

"We're by no means out of anything," said right guard Bobbie Williams, who broke his ankle on Sunday and is out for the season. "Our chances are a little tougher, but we can still finish up these last three with a very successful record. Then hey, let the chips fall where they may after that."

They've been eliminated from the AFC North race, where Pittsburgh and Baltimore share the top spot at 10-3. The team that fails to win the division will likely get the first wild-card spot. The New York Jets (8-5) have moved ahead of Cincinnati for the other wild card berth.

The Bengals are tied with the Titans and Raiders at 7-6, one game out. Cincinnati has a favorable finishing schedule. The Bengals play their final road game at St. Louis (2-10) on Sunday, then have home games against Arizona (6-7) and the Ravens.

By comparison, the Jets play at Philadelphia (5-8), against the New York Giants (7-6), then finish at Miami (4-9).

Three of those four recent losses have come down to the game's final drive. On Sunday, rookie T.J. Yates led Texas 80 yards in less than 3 minutes with no timeouts, throwing the winning touchdown pass with 2 seconds to go.

The Bengals know the last-minute lapse may have cost them the playoffs.

"It hurts," offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "We made a lot of good plays. To have a game slip away like that is tough."

The pass defense has been a big problem. Top cornerback Leon Hall is out for the season, and Nate Clements — the other starter — has been playing through injuries. Yates completed 26 of 44 for 300 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. The Texans had 412 yards in all.

Safeties Chris Crocker and Reggie Nelson are the only starters in the secondary who are healthy.

"We've had some injuries, but you've got to play," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "And we've got to make plays. We had an opportunity yesterday to make plays. Obviously we've got only two players back there that were with us most of last season."

The offensive line is in flux, too. Right tackle Andre Smith missed the game Sunday with an injured left ankle. Williams broke his right ankle in the second quarter and was placed on the season-ending injury list.

Williams was on crutches with his foot in a boot as he left the stadium on Monday. He'll see a specialist to determine whether he needs surgery.

The game on Sunday drew only 41,202 fans, the second-smallest crowd in Paul Brown Stadium history and smaller than the University of Cincinnati drew for one of its games at the stadium this season. The Bengals have sold out only one home game, when the Steelers brought thousands of fans with them.

They're not likely to sell out either of the last two, which are played on Christmas Eve and New Year's Day.

"It's disappointing," Lewis said of the crowds. "I think people are missing out. I get excited and I can't wait for Sundays to watch our guys play because I know it's going to be exciting.

"They're missing a great show."

Notes: Smith is expected to practice on Wednesday, an indication he could be ready to return for the game in St. Louis. Anthony Collins filled it at right tackle against Houston. ... Mike McGlynn took over at right guard when Williams went down. Lewis said rookie Clint Boling, who started the first three games of the season at the spot when Williams was serving a suspension, also will runs some plays in practice there.