The Cincinnati Bengals' playoff hopes steadily dimmed during a stretch in which they faced some of the AFC's top teams.
While they'll take on two sub-.500 opponents over their final three games, the Bengals' only break would appear to come Sunday when they visit the woeful St. Louis Rams.
A run of five consecutive wins - four against teams which currently have losing records - gave Cincinnati a share of the AFC North lead in early November. That success, however, might seem like a distant memory as the Bengals have since dropped four of five.
All four of those defeats - two to Pittsburgh and one apiece to Baltimore and Houston - came to teams which now share the AFC's best record at 10-3. Last week's defeat to the Texans had to be the most heartbreaking and also eliminated Cincinnati (7-6) from the division title chase.
The Bengals gave up a touchdown pass to third-string quarterback T.J. Yates with two seconds left to lose 20-19. Cincinnati, which led 16-3 in the third quarter and was up nine with less than six minutes to play, remains one game behind the New York Jets for the AFC's final playoff berth.
"We're by no means out of anything," said right guard Bobbie Williams, who broke his ankle last Sunday and is out for the season. "Our chances are a little tougher, but we can still finish up these last three with a very successful record. Then hey, let the chips fall where they may after that."
The Bengals play their final road game Sunday before returning home to face Arizona, which is 6-7 but has won three straight and five of six, and a Ravens team which has won four in a row.
That makes this game all the more crucial to Cincinnati's playoff chances. The Bengals have only one touchdown in each of their two games this month - Andy Dalton has combined to go just 27 of 52 for 324 yards - but they're facing a Rams team averaging a league-worst 11.8 points.
St. Louis (2-11) has been outscored 103-40 during its current four-game skid, and its only TD in Monday's 30-13 loss at Seattle came with 4:39 to play on Steven Jackson's 1-yard run. It took the Rams six plays to get that yard.
"There are a lot of things we have to overcome, but we've got to overcome them," coach Steve Spagnuolo said. "We're not going to use any excuses. We've got to find a way to win."
St. Louis also must find a way to stop the run, ranking last in the NFL with 156.8 rushing yards allowed per contest.
Facing that defense might help Cedric Benson rebound from a miserable final 30 minutes against Houston. He finished with 91 yards on 21 carries but had minus-1 on eight attempts in the second half.
"We look forward to being able to run the ball on them consistently," said Benson, 117 yards shy of reaching 1,000 for the third straight season. "We still have a challenge ahead of us, but I think we can do some positive things in the run game."
While the loss of Williams could hamper Benson, the return of right tackle Andre Smith from an ailing ankle would help. Smith, the No. 6 overall pick in the 2009 draft, sat out last week's loss.
The Rams, meanwhile, continue to have problems staying healthy on offense. Guard Jacob Bell joined tackles Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith on injured reserve before last week's game, and tackle Mark LeVoir (groin) might also be unavailable during the short week of preparation.
Quarterback Sam Bradford has been dealing with a sprained left ankle and didn't seem optimistic about playing this week. If he sits out, Kellen Clemens would likely start even though he didn't sign with the Rams until last week. Backup A.J. Feeley remains out with a broken thumb.
Whoever starts at quarterback will be trying to keep Cincinnati winless in St. Louis. The Bengals have lost to the Rams there twice, in 1996 and 2003, and to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1985.
Cincinnati snapped a three-game skid to the Rams during the previous matchup in 2007.