After watching the Bengals' bid to take command of the AFC North incinerate into 25 unanswered points during the fourth quarter of Sunday's 42-21 loss to the Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium, safety George Iloka pondered the question.
Do they have to win the final three games of the season to make the playoffs? Win out?
"I think we have to win the next one and we'll go from there," Iloka said. "We have to do everything we can to come out of (Cleveland's) home field with a win. To me, it's a playoff game. It's a one-game series. We've got to come out like Pittsburgh came out. It's now or never."
Now for the 8-4-1 Bengals is next Sunday's game at 7-6 Cleveland (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19). Never is an odd word in the NFL on a day the Bengals surrendered their most yards at home (543) in 19 seasons in a 1995 game against the Steelers. Stick around and you'll see everything and anything.
It was not a great day for the defense. It allowed their longest run since Ray Rice's 70-yarder in the 2011 regular-season finale and their longest pass since 2004.
"We're back in a familiar position," said WILL linebacker Vincent Rey. "Win or I don't want to know what the alternative is."
They may still be in first place, but if they feel like they've been hit by a season-long truck, it's because of days like this. Their four losses have come by 26, 27, 21, and 21 to other teams in the AFC playoff race. And to two teams, the Steelers and Browns, they have to play again.
On the road.
"At that point, they had a big lead in the fourth quarter and made some big plays. The game wasn't like that," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "For three quarters of the game, it was a tight football game, and we had the lead. One quarter of football doesn't define our season, and we don't worry about the end score of the game. We worry about we won, and that's the only thing they keep track of. Winning the next three football games by a half a point or 30, I don't care. We have to win and put ourselves in a position where we want to be."
On the heels of running back Le'Veon Bell's historic day (he joined Walter Payton as the only man with three straight games of 200 scrimmage yards), the 8-5 Steelers moved into a second-place tie with the 8-5 Ravens, a dropped ball from wresting first place from the Bengals. A tipped pass or a wayward kick or a shoestring tackle.
But on Sunday in the fourth quarter it was two plays that tightened the AFC North race. The Fumble on an exchange between quarterback Andy Dalton and rookie running back Jeremy Hill.
And the newest Steelers' Bengals assassin in the mold of Hines Ward and Kimo von Oelhoffen, Bell and his breathtaking 53-yard run.
As if to underscore the inconsistency of the 2014 roller coaster Kings Island Bengals, the ball was dropped on a similar play that generated a touchdown earlier in the game.
With a 21-20 Bengals lead and the ball with 12:45 left, a botched handoff between Dalton and Hill on a zone read translated into 22 points during the next nightmarish 7:36.
While Bell ran wild, the Bengals never got a first down in that span, had two penalties (blocking below the waist on wide receiver Mohamed Sanu and holding on right guard Kevin Zeitler), and Dalton had to leave for one snap when he got the wind knocked of him on a shot to the chest as he threw.
"I felt we were in the driver's seat until we had that turnover," said wide receiver A.J. Green, who had the big day in a big game his career deserves. "We're the type of team if we have a turnover, we can't get down on ourselves. We have to be able to respond to that and come back and have another big drive. We didn't convert on third down. I didn't do a good job on third down. We have to get better at that."
Green denied what other people are thinking. That these Bengals fold at the slightest whiff of adversity Against New England (43-17), Indianapolis (27-0), and Cleveland (24-3), it happened right away.
"I don't think so," Green said. "This is the NFL. Things aren't (always) going to go your way. We didn't correct third down. I have to do better on my routes on third down to find a way to get opened."
On Sunday the adversity started with 12:45 left on the fumble. Or, now it is The Fumble.
"Any time you turn the ball over in the scoring zone, it doesn't lead to good things and from that point on we just we're trying to dig out of a hole," Hill said. "You can't do that. You're playing in a close division game until the fourth quarter and doing everything you can to put yourself in position to win the game. It's tough when everything falls apart at the end.
"You get turnovers and dropped balls and it all starts going downhill," Hill said. "Our team isn't built that way. We definitely need to start out fast and be in tempo and not let the other team dictates the tempo of the game and let them run the ball and mix it up. That's our recipe for success. They used that against us today and it was our downfall."
Hill and Dalton were still confused after the game.
"He thought I was giving it and I tried to take it," Dalton said.
"It happened so fast. I think he tried to keep it," Hill said.
Three things are for sure.
One, both said it changed the game. "You can't have that," Dalton said. And two, they both worked it for the longest touchdown run ever by a Bengals quarterback in the second quarter on a textbook 20-yard zone read run. Dalton pulled the ball out of Hill's belly when he saw linebacker Jason Worldis crash from Dalton's right edge. Dalton tucked it, ducked around right end and went in untouched for a 14-7 lead with 2:57 left in the first half.
"The run game was going and we were mixing up the pass and we kind of had them on their heels," Hill said. "We quick played them and they assumed I'd be getting the ball and he did a great job keeping it and scoring."
Plus three, Hill took ownership.
"At the end of the day it's on me," he said.
As Whitworth said, fourth-quarter turnovers usually define AFC North games. It was big enough to overshadow how well Dalton played with a 128.8 passer rating, his best ever against the Steelers.
But truth be told, Bell's 53-yarder was just as crucial as The Fumble on his way to 110 yards in the fourth quarter as he romped to 185 yards, the most against the Bengals in 45 regular-season games when Ray Rice had 191 in the 2011 season finale. How long is 45 games? That's how long Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was the head coach of the Bengals from 2000-2002.
The run was huge because it came the first snap after Dalton and A.J. Green had given them a 21-17 lead on a marvelous 81-yard touchdown play on the last play of the third quarter.
And the Steelers were running this play long before then. It was a simple power play and it's how Bell got most of his yards Sunday. Right guard David DeCastro pulled and tight end Heath Miller motioned to the left. This time Miller picked off Iloka and DeCastro pushed out cornerback Adam Jones. For good measure, fullback Will Johnson tied up Rey for the longest regular-season run against the Bengals since Rice's 70-yarder in that same '11 season finale.
"We saw that they couldn't stop it. The offensive line — that's the play they wanted to go with," Bell said. " We ran a lot of counter, a lot of 'Georgia.' The offensive line was like, 'Man, we feel good about it.' As a runner, I'm running whatever the offensive linemen want to run. So those guys felt good about it. We ran the same play two, three, four times in a row, consecutively. Those guys just couldn't stop it. So we continued to run with it. I tried to stay patient, made sure I held onto the ball and got what I could."
The 53-yarder set up a field goal to cut it to 21-20. Then when Bell got the ball back on The Fumble, he got the go-ahead TD on 13-yarder on the same play, only this time DeCastro pulled and took out Rey and Miller motioned and got Adam Jones.
"That was the run that was killing us," said nose tackle Domata Peko. "A guy here or there wasn't in their gaps and just missed tackles. I'm sure if you go back and look at the tape you'll see a lot of missed tackles.
"The 50-yarder was the one that got them going. Up until then, we'd done a pretty good job on him. But that put them over 100 and that seemed to get them going."
Then after a three-and-out (they couldn't get the ball to Green on third-and-nine), the Steelers stunned them on the first play with the 94-yard bomb to Martavis Bryant for the score that put them up two TDs at 35-21 with 8:31 left. The Steelers simply motioned Bryant, saw that cornerback Leon Hall was by himself with no safety help in thirds coverage and Bryant whisked by him down the right sideline for the second longest touchdown against the Bengals and the longest since Jeff Garcia went 99 yards against them in 2004 in Cleveland.
Iloka disputed that The Fumble took the gas out of them.
"Not me," he said. "Last week we did it three times against Tampa," said Iloka of the defense's response to three turnovers. "No one should use the turnover on offense as an excuse to crush our spirits. We were still up. Whatever the situation we have to get the opposing team off the field and we didn't."
The stark numbers of the stat sheet said it all, 25-0 in the fourth quarter. It was eerily similar to that day in '95 at Riverfront Stadium against the Steelers, when Marvin Lewis was coaching the Pittsburgh linebackers. It was 21-0 that day in the fourth.
"We played well for three quarters. Just the fourth quarter we started to unravel as a team," Iloka said. "We have to finish. Coaches all the way from high school talk about finishing drills, finishing drills. That's the metaphor. Finish the drill and let's finish the game. We played well for three quarters and played bad for the last quarter. We got our butt kicked in that fourth quarter.
"We just have to play all four quarters and we have to play together and we have to be consistent. You can all see when we're clicking how good we can do. But when we're not clicking you see performances like this. We need to play better and I'm confident (defensive coordinator Paul Guenther) and all the defensive coaches and Marvin will get us ready for Cleveland."