Bengals fade down the stretch after fast start
CINCINNATI — Call it the year of the fade.
The Cincinnati Bengals got their long-suffering fans excited by starting the season with a franchise first, sweeping the rest of the AFC North to win the division title. Then, with a chance to make their surprising season something special, they faded away by losing four of the last five.
A 24-14 loss to the New York Jets in a wild-card game on Saturday extended their streak without a playoff win to 19 years and counting.
“This is only the start, only the beginning,” linebacker Brandon Johnson said.
Or, maybe it was only a blip, a season when things went their way enough times to get them to the playoffs for only the second time since 1990. The franchise’s track record isn’t promising that way — they’ve reached the playoffs in consecutive seasons only once in their history, back in 1981-82.
To break that streak, they’ve got a lot of work to do on offense.
The high-energy passing game that got them to the playoffs in 2005 is a thing of the past. The Bengals decided to become a run-oriented team this season, and it got them to the playoffs but no farther. Their inability to throw the ball caught up with them in the end.
Carson Palmer went 1 of 11 for no yards in a 37-0 loss to the Jets at the Meadowlands that ended the regular season, then was 18 of 36 for 146 yards with a touchdown and an interception in the playoff loss. Another Southern California quarterback — Jets rookie Mark Sanchez — got a playoff win before he did.
Cincinnati’s last playoff win came in 1990, when Paul Brown was still in the front office and Boomer Esiason was handing off to Ickey Woods. The Bengals have gone through a grab-bag of quarterbacks since then — David Klingler, Jeff Blake, Neil O’Donnell, Scott Mitchell, Gus Frerotte, Akili Smith, Jon Kitna — trying to get to the playoffs and win a game. No one could.
So far, not even Palmer.
While Sanchez looked calm in his first playoff game, the 30-year-old Palmer was repeatedly off-target, playing more like the rookie.
“I was throwing the ball a little high,” Palmer said. “I don’t know if it was jitters or not, but I was missing some balls early. But I felt like I started to get it back as the game went on.”
His receivers weren’t much help, and that’s the biggest problem the Bengals need to fix in the offseason. They lost their two top tight ends to injury during training camp — Reggie Kelly and Ben Utecht — and weren’t able to replace dependable third-down receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who left as a free agent. No running back emerged as a receiving threat.
By the end, Chad Ochocinco was the only dependable receiver, and he was rarely open because of double and triple coverages. The Jets held him to two catches in the last two games.
“We lost some guys to injury, and we will look at getting better offensively,” coach Marvin Lewis said. “The quarterback is always going to be a fine player. We need to keep putting key pieces around him to enable him to utilize his skills as much as we can.”
The defense was the team’s strength, but it faded at the end with key players hurt. Tackle Domata Peko, end Robert Geathers and safety Chris Crocker were limited down the stretch. The defense allowed four of the last five teams to run for more than 100 yards, putting it in a tough spot.
“The games got tougher and tougher down the stretch,” defensive tackle Tank Johnson said. “We just didn’t finish the season.”
The Bengals played four of their last five games against playoff teams — Minnesota, San Diego and the Jets — and lost all four, an indication that they’re not ready to join the league’s elite.
“We were playing a lot better earlier,” Palmer said. “We wore down a little bit, which happens with everyone. We definitely became worn down, but that’s not an excuse.”
When the Bengals reached the playoffs as AFC North champs in 2005, they thought they were at the start of a long run of postseason appearances. They went 8-8 the next season, then slipped to 7-9 and 4-11-1 last season. The question now is whether this playoff appearance will be the start of something, or just another anomaly.
“We’re in a completely different situation personnel-wise now than we were in 2005,” Palmer said. “We have guys now that winning is important to. We have to go back to work. You can’t be stagnant because everyone else is improving.”