How can a team so good in the last three regular seasons look so awful when the calendar turns to January?
Considering how mightily the Cincinnati Bengals struggled in the 1990s and 2000s, the level of unrest surrounding the franchise after four playoff appearances in five years seems silly. And winning the AFC North title and going 11-5 in the regular season counts for something.
But, given how well the Bengals have played during the last three regular seasons, they should also be beyond meek first-round postseason exits to also-rans like the one San Diego dealt them Sunday.
And it’s not hard to point to whose performance has suffered the worst come playoff time.
On Sunday, when Cincinnati was shocked by a Chargers outfit it knocked off a month ago, third-year quarterback Andy Dalton was in charge of an offensive unit that had only to hold steady in the second half.
Instead, they didn’t score after halftime, wasting a solid Bengals defensive effort that kept Cincinnati in the game longer than it deserved to be.
The offense looked decent early. Dalton directed Cincinnati to 10 points in the final six minutes of the first half, finding Jermaine Gresham for a touchdown while being hit and then getting the Bengals into position for a 46-yard Mike Nugent field goal to end the half.
After the disappointment of back-to-back wild-card losses to Houston, Cincinnati was a half away from ending the NFL’s longest drought between playoff victories. It had the opportunity to craft a new, kinder playoff narrative.
Instead, the Bengals let their 10-7 lead at intermission melt away into a 27-10 loss.
The Red Rifle, his favorite target and their compadres spit the bit on the big stage. Again.
Three straight Dalton turnovers — a fumble at the end of a scramble, then back-to-back interceptions on very poor decisions — and a dropped long ball by the ordinarily sure-handed A.J. Green are the plays that will stick in Bengals fans’ memories when they think of this season.
The Bengals had been able to consistently depend on rookie running back Giovani Bernard, but he also lost a fumble deep in Chargers territory in the first half that cost Cincinnati a bigger halftime lead.
Cincinnati’s offensive and defensive lines were outclassed, though the defense did bail the Bengals out big-time twice, forcing San Diego to settle for two short second-half field goals. And offensive coordinator Jay Gruden’s play-calling has been called into question.
A generally impressive regular season that included four victories against playoff teams indicated this team had figured out how to beat solid opponents, even if it lost a couple winnable games, too.
That sort of inconsistency is a telltale mark of a young team, and in assessing the past three seasons, it’s instructive to remember Dalton and Green, the core of this Bengals offense, are both just three years into their NFL careers.
But, by now, there shouldn’t be such a disconnect between their regular season success and their playoff inadequacy.
Dalton set single-season franchise records for passing touchdowns and passing yards this year, but he owns one TD and six interceptions in his three playoff games.
He fared no better in this postseason loss than either of the previous two, all of which were winnable.
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis’ record dropped to 0-5 in postseason play, and owner Mike Brown has exhibited a largely laissez-faire, hands-off approach in recent offseasons, so wide-sweeping personnel changes are considered unlikely.
So at this point, it’s fair to wonder if this is as good as it gets under Cincinnati’s current leadership.
ZACK KLEMME can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2658.