PITTSBURGH — The Bengals began their stretch run Sunday careening out of the first turn here at Heinz Field in a 35-7 loss to the Steelers that sticks out of this season like Ben Roethlisberger's sore thumb.
With the AFC Wild Card picture now officially tighter than firewall security, the Bengals desperately need a win over a contender and here come the AFC South-leading Texans for next Sunday's 1 p.m. game at Paul Brown Stadium.
The Bengals need to take breather from the AFC North leaders, where Cincinnati has come up short three times in the past three weeks by combined scores of 90-48 with a turnover differential of minus-five in two losses to the Steelers and one to the Ravens.
For the first time all season the Bengals didn't go play-to-play and instead let the bad plays pile up into an avalanche; it was the first time in 24 years they allowed 28 points in a quarter as they fell behind 28-7 at the half.
It was sloppy with a season-high 10 penalties, it was ugly with the first three-sack game since the opener, and it was shocking after playing the Steelers close in a 24-17 loss just three weeks ago.
"We didn't go into this game thinking that this would be the outcome," said defensive lineman Frostee Rucker. "We put a lot of work into our craft, and we didn't get the job done. There are no fingers to point at anyone but ourselves. We have to be better."
The Bengals circled the wagons and found themselves tied for the final AFC Wild Card spot and the naysayers are back questioning their playoff worthiness. "That's the first game we were out of it," rookie wide receiver A.J. Green said after participating in his first NFL rout. "If you look back at the season, we've been in every game. I feel like we were a 7-4 team and one game isn't going to define our season."
But it is going to impact it dramatically now that the Bengals are in a 7-5 gridlock with the Jets, Titans, Broncos and Raiders. If the season ended Sunday, the Bengals would have the sixth seed.
"If we would have won this ballgame today, we would have controlled things better. We don't control things as much now, but next week's another week," said head coach Marvin Lewis.
With four games left, defensive tackle Domata Peko says the magic number is 10 wins or plus to get that final Wild Card spot and outside linebacker Thomas Howard concurred.
"No doubt. If we want to get to where we want to go, we're going to have to beat this team here," Howard said. "It's a tough division we play in. We love it. We love it. We just have to play better."
The question is how will the AFC's youngest team come out of this week after such a beating. Howard, one of the veterans, didn't minimize what happened Sunday.
"It's a tough loss, but there are more games to play," Howard said. "But it's a tough loss. I don't want to take that away. It's a tough loss. We didn't put our best foot forward. They won the turnover battle and that's always crucial. We'll clean it up and get better."
Quarterback Andy Dalton knows he can't let not playing well against the Steelers and Ravens weigh on his mind even if someone named T.J. Yates is the next opponent, a much less heralded rookie QB taken in the fifth round.
"I think the biggest thing is that this game only counts as one," said Dalton, pulled early in the fourth quarter to prevent more abuse from the marauding James Harrison after the last of his three sacks sent him limping.
"Yeah, they are a division opponent and all that kind of stuff, but in the big scheme of things it only counts as one. We can't let this hurt us. We can't let this affect the next four. That's the big thing; we've got to go in and get ready. We're going to play a really good team in Houston next week, and we've got to get ready to go."
Dalton, so good most of his rookie season, has found the going tough against the Steelers and Ravens. After his least productive effort of the year Sunday (11-for-24, 135 yards for one touchdown) he's now 0-3 against Pittsburgh and Baltimore on 50-of-99 passing for 678 yards, four touchdowns, five interceptions and a passer rating of 65.1.
In the other nine games, he's 179-of-288 for 1,966 yards with 13 touchdowns, seven interceptions, and a rating of 87.2.
The only good thing about Sunday is Dalton came out of it upright with Lewis saying he's fine.
But as Rucker said, there's no pointing of fingers. There can't be on a day the offense scored its fewest points, the defense gave up touchdown drives of 87 and 93 yards and special teams fumbled a kickoff, allowed a punt return for a touchdown, had a field goal blocked, and lost another on a delay of game penalty.
"It was bad. What can you say?" asked safety Chris Crocker. "We've got to tighten it up. You know we're going to practice hard."
Peko wasn't happy with all the second-effort yards the Steelers running backs manufactured out of spinning away from tackles.
"It wasn't just the defense, it was the offense and special teams, too. We all have to play better," Peko said. "We're going to have to get healthy and we've got to get better because we're running out of time. We've only got four games left and we have to win them all I think.
"No excuses. They played better than us."
Peko assured that the run would get fixed and Howard said the Bengals wouldn't waste any time.
"We'll be watching this game on the plane cleaning it up," Howard said. "The players will be and then we'll meet with the coaches on Monday to get ready for the Texans."
They know roster longshot wide receiver Andrew Hawkins is going to be resilient now that he's a special-teamer and he's down with how special teams played.
"It's disappointing in a big game like this, but we'll bounce back," Hawkins said. "We have four games left in the season, and I think this team is good for it. Obviously we're disappointed but we're not hanging our heads. We're going to go back tomorrow, look at the film and come out next week against Houston trying to fire on all cylinders."
There was some grousing about penalties, but with the qualifier someone could have made a play to negate them. A huge 45-yard pass interference call on Crocker working on wide receiver Mike Wallace set up the second TD just five minutes after the first one on a ball that was well overthrown. Both Lewis and Crocker said it was an uncatchable ball.
"But if you make contact with the receiver," Crocker said, "you're putting it in the hands of the officials and you can't do it."
It was also clear that Hawkins was blocked in the back on wide receiver Antonio Brown's punt return for a touchdown that made it 28-7 late in the first half. But linebacker Vincent Rey said he should have made the play as the wall formed down the right side.
The Bengals have made a season out of coming from behind to win after bad first halves. Now they have to come back from a bad first game in December.
"I think even though the score was what it was, I think we're still up there and trying hard," Dalton said. "Things just didn't work in our favor today, but the good thing is it is only one game."