Bengals clinch last place, adding intrigue to Lewis’ fate

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              Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis watches during the first half of an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Richard)
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CINCINNATI (AP) — A lackluster showing in Cleveland consigned the Bengals to last place for only the second time in coach Marvin Lewis’ 16 seasons and added another twist to Cincinnati’s futile and fan-alienating season.

A 26-18 loss locked Cincinnati (6-9) into last place in the AFC North for the first time since 2010 and raised more questions about whether Lewis will get a 17th chance with the franchise that’s lost games and fans at an alarming rate.

“I don’t know,” end Carlos Dunlap said, when asked about Lewis’ fate. “A lot of things happen. Everybody is making business decisions.”

Not so much in Cincinnati.

Owner Mike Brown has ignored fans’ demands for change while keeping head coaches around. During the 1990s, he extended Dave Shula’s contract while he was in the midst of losing 50 games faster than any coach in NFL history. He’s repeatedly rewarded Lewis with more chances even though he has yet to win a playoff game.

The loss in Cleveland stripped away one of the justifications Brown used last year for keeping Lewis around. The Bengals got blown out by the Bears and Vikings in consecutive weeks, but rallied to beat the Lions and the Ravens in the last two games.

Brown cited the team’s effort in the final two weeks as one of the reasons he gave Lewis an extension following a 7-9 finish, overlooking the franchise’s drop to second to last in the league in home attendance, ahead of only the Chargers in their small, temporary home in Carson, California.

Even fewer fans showed up this season.

The depleted Bengals were listless for most of their game Sunday in Cleveland (7-7-1) against a team that’s also been eliminated from playoff contention. The Browns played harder and better while sweeping their season series with the Bengals for the first time since 2002, when coach Dick LeBeau was fired and Lewis was hired.

Cincinnati wraps up a third straight losing season on Sunday in Pittsburgh, which will have a playoff spot on the line. The Steelers (8-6-1) need a win and a loss by the Ravens (9-6), who host the Browns.

For Cincinnati, the trip to Heinz Field will be a full-circle moment. The Bengals opened the season 4-1 and could have taken control of the division, but the Steelers pulled one out at Paul Brown Stadium on Oct. 14 with a play that became the signature moment of the Bengals’ implosion.

Ben Roethlisberger saw the Bengals in an all-out blitz and threw a short pass that Antonio Brown turned into a 31-yard touchdown with 10 seconds left. The Steelers’ 28-21 victory ruptured Cincinnati’s sense that this season would finally be different.

The Steelers have won seven straight and 10 of 11 against their Ohio River rival. The Bengals are a staggering 8-25 against the Steelers under Lewis, including 2-16 at Paul Brown Stadium.

If Brown wants to retain Lewis despite the three straight losing seasons and his 0-7 career mark in the playoffs, he can point to the injuries to star players during the Bengals’ 2-8 fade.

Quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green had season-ending injuries. No. 2 receiver Tyler Boyd also is sidelined with a knee injury, leaving backup quarterback Jeff Driskel with few options. He completed only 2 of 6 passes in the first half for 3 yards as Cleveland took control.

The defense wasn’t much better. Baker Mayfield completed 27 of 37 passes for 284 yards and three touchdowns without getting hit. The only time the Bengals made contact was when Mayfield ran for a first down and Dunlap hit him at the sideline, prompting a skirmish.

How much any of that figures into Browns’ calculations won’t be known for another week. Players know that something has to change.

“You can make arguments either way,” Dunlap said. “I just want to get back to it, get back to where we started off here, the habits we created. I want that feeling back. Today is not the feeling.”

NEW TIME

The game in Pittsburgh was originally scheduled for a 1 p.m. kickoff, but the NFL moved it to a 4:25 p.m. start, putting it head to head in the same time slot with the Browns-Ravens game.