HOUSTON — It was hard to figure what was more amazing about the Bengals 19-13 loss to the Texans in Saturday's Wild Card game at Reliant Stadium.
That they played so badly on offense while failing to score a touchdown or convert a third down. Or that they still had a chance with 2:57 left to win it, when quarterback Andy Dalton overthrew an open A.J. Green in the end zone by so much that his Pro Bowl wide receiver couldn't touch it even as he stretched out his 6-4 frame.
"Our defense played lights-out this whole season," Green said. "It hurts to see them play so well and we're out there struggling on offense and not giving them the blow they need sometime. We're not doing our part on offense."
It is the epitaph of the 2012 season that ended so mysteriously on offense and so well on defense and stalks this franchise into the offseason still seeking head coach Marvin Lewis's first playoff victory. The brutal 198-yard effort that included Dalton's second-worst passing game of his career marked the second time in two elimination games in the last three weeks the offense didn't score a touchdown and no doubt has them going back to the drawing board as the offseason dawns.
"It was a bad performance for us offensively. Hats off to the defense for what they were able to do," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "I'll shoulder it. I'll find a way to get (the team) better."
Whitworth, one of the locker-room leaders and veterans, had a message for the raft of first- and second-year players that populate his offense.
"We're making strides," Whitworth said. "We keep knocking on the door. If you keep knocking on the door, somewhere you find that hole you get through.
"We're young as crap. We're seriously young. We've got a lot of young guys playing in these environments for the first time. We'll get better. It's my job to make us better. Like I told (some) of our young guys, put it on me, let me shoulder it. I'll find a way for us to get better."
This was supposed to be The Day. The Bengals were hot. Winners of seven of the last eight with the stingiest defense in the league over the second half of the season that was allowing nothing on the ground (97 rushing yards per game in those last eight) and nothing on the scoreboard at 12.8 points per game. Even the national pundits who rustled this week to realize the Bengals had made the playoffs for the third time in four games had them beating a Texans team that had lost three of its last four and had squandered a playoff bye with last week's ugly loss in Indianapolis.
But it ended up with another Wild Card heartbreak, four in the past eight years, complete with extra angst for Bengaldom. Former Bengal Shayne Graham, whose miss in the final seconds of the 2006 season cost the Bengals a playoff appearance and his two misses from inside 36 yards helped doom their '09 Wild Card outing, made all four of his field-goal tries for the Texans while former No. 1 pick Johnathan Joseph helped hold Green to 80 yards on five catches.
And even though the defense got pushed around in the running game as the brilliant Arian Foster tattooed a season-high 140 rushing yards on the Bengals, they still held a team under 20 points for the eighth time in nine games with more red-zone magic. The Bengals came into the game allowing just five touchdowns in their last 17 red-zone trips and kept things close Saturday when they did it three more times out of four chances.
With 420 yards for the Texans, the Bengals allowed their most yards since Denver's 431-yard effort on Nov. 4 because they were on the field for 38:49 and 77 plays. That happens when the offense goes 0-for-9 on third down and five of them are longer than third-and-10. The Bengals offensive line had trouble coping as it suffered through zero or negative yardage on six of its precious-few 48 snaps. Two were sacks, two were screens, and two were runs.
"They jump around and do crazy stuff and make you have negative plays," Whitworth said. "It's what they live off. If you don't have the negative plays, you have a chance to convert. We had the negative plays that put us in third and long and nobody in the entire National Football League is very good at third and long, and it's not going to change in the playoffs."
The quarterback is always the point man, good or bad, and Dalton is going to have to spend the offseason hearing how he didn't come close to exploiting the vulnerable Texans secondary like elite quarterbacks such as Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Andrew Luck did this season as he finished Saturday with a 44.7 passer rating on 14-of-30 for 127 yards.
"We just needed to be more consistent with that. We needed to make one more play, keep the drive going, pick up one more third down, maybe pick up another third down and keep drives going, different things like that," Dalton said. "Yeah, the offense didn't play as well as it could have, but you can always look back and say what-if."
There were some head-scratching moments. From not targeting Green until 10:15 left in the third quarter and then showering him with 11 targets in the final 25 minutes, to throwing what amounted to a slant to rookie wide receiver Marvin Jones on fourth-and-11 from the Texans 36 with 2:51 left that was three yards short on a ball that was not thrown particularly well.
"I tried to put it on Marvin quick so he turns upfield. Obviously we wish we were able to pick that one up, but again you can look back and say what-if," Dalton said. "That was the design and everything that was the right read and the completion wasn't far enough."
With the Texans down at linebacker and showing a deep zone at times while their top cornerback, Joseph, had help at times covering Green, the Bengals tried to get tight end Jermaine Gresham involved early down the middle. But he dropped a ball on the second snap of the game, had at least one other drop, and had just two catches for seven yards despite seven targets.
(The Bengals had gotten so many big moments from their big-time players down the 7-1 stretch. But on Saturday not only did Dalton and Green play like strangers, but Gresham couldn't make a big play and their vaunted pass rush didn't get a sack.)
"Jermaine is so talented, he's such a big guy, and you put him on linebackers and even their dime guy," Dalton said. "With his big body, he can create a little bit of space and do things like that but today we didn't get it done.
"They weren't necessarily taking (Green) away; we just had designs where we were going to other guys. We got to the second half and I started throwing his way. I think just the designs of the plays; we were trying to get Jermaine the ball early. We were trying to get some of the other guys going, but we weren't making plays. I need to do a better job making sure A.J. gets his catches. He is one of the best receivers in this league. He needs to have the ball thrown his way a lot. I think I could have done a little bit better job, but we tried to get other guys involved as well."
Two weeks ago in Pittsburgh, Dalton and Green put the Bengals in the playoffs on a 21-yard throw with 14 seconds left. On Saturday they took them out of the playoffs when they could only hook up five times for 80 yards and failed on two deep balls in the end zone. Dalton overthrew Green late, and earlier in the fourth quarter Green couldn't hang on to one on a first-down throw from the Texans 37. As the ball went through his hands he got leveled in double coverage by cornerback Kareem Jackson.
"We've got to work on the deep ball," said Green, whose 45-yard catch in the third quarter was his first 40-plus-yard grab since Nov. 25.
And the one interception Dalton threw came early in the second half when he and Green were not on the proverbial same page as Dalton sailed a quick one over the middle to him before Green could turn his head and Joseph picked it off. That put the ball on the Bengals 26 and that was the killer because it led to a field goal that forced the Bengals to gun for a touchdown in the last few moments instead of a game-tying field goal.
"It was just quick. I should've got my head around a little quicker but it happens," Green said.
There were no histrionics after this one, of course. Green isn't one to cry about not getting the ball, but he knows how important he is in the offense.
"Football is a game of inches," Green said. "That's one thing we need to get better. We need to capitalize on plays that are sent our way. That's the next step to being a great team. It's frustrating on the national stage."
The pundits were right. It came down to one play and Dalton didn't make the throw with 2:57 left and he knows he'll have to live with an offseason of questions about his deep-ball accuracy.
"We had a double move on, A.J. ran a good route, and I just threw it a little bit too far," Dalton said. "The play, if we would have made it, obviously the game is a whole lot different. It's one you can look back on and say if you hit that it changes the game."
"We're inches away," Whitworth said.
But it won't shorten the offseason.