Reality stings for Bengals again

CLEVELAND — With drops of sweat still dotting his forehead, frustrated Bengals tackle Andrew Whitworth sat at his locker Sunday afternoon and answered the kind of questions veteran team leaders have to answer when these things happen.

These prolonged stretches of bad football. These bad losses.

“I’m very disappointed in the last two games,” Whitworth said. “I think we’re better than that. We’re a better offense than that.”

After losing 34-24 in Cleveland Sunday and dropping to 3-3, it’s fair to wonder a few things.

Chief among them: Are the Bengals really better than that?

Right now, the answer is an emphatic no.

The good vibes from a 3-1 start are a distant memory. The Bengals have now delivered two straight clunkers, games they were favored to win and didn’t. The Bengals haven’t made enough plays, haven’t produced in the big moments and haven’t developed any type of flow or built any momentum to sustain.

The Browns went from going three and out on seven straight possessions to scoring 24 points in the span of about 15 minutes, starting midway through the third quarter. The Browns were the sharper team, the more determined team and in the last 20 minutes they set the tempo and took charge.

The Browns are now 1-5. They’d lost 12 straight AFC North Division games prior to Sunday. The Browns were going to win sometime, and they earned this one. But the Bengals are left to wonder why they couldn’t take advantage of all those Browns missteps, why they ran out of time at the end of the first half and why a game the Bengals pretty much had to win got away from them so quickly.

“Squandered opportunities,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said, shaking his head.

The Bengals have developed some bad habits. Last week, the Bengals were only able to muster six points from two early Dolphins turnovers, and this week they made almost nothing out of the Browns’ prolonged offensive dry spell. Andy Dalton has thrown three interceptions that have been returned for touchdowns; one Sunday was the backbreaker in a game that wasn’t looking good for the guys in stripes, anyway.

Letting the opponent sustain drives and waiting too long to get A.J. Green involved are bad habits, too. In the NFL, your habits become your identity, and your identity becomes your record.

Are the Bengals capable of better than what they’ve shown recently? Right now, it’s hard to say yes.

The sky isn’t totally falling on a team that’s 3-3 two weeks into October, but any reasonable projection of another Bengals playoff run would have included avoiding losing streaks, stacking wins in the early, easier portion of the schedule and going at least 1-1 in this Dolphins-Browns double that precedes a three-game homestand.

The Bengals have time to turn it around. They have a whole lot of turning to do.

“We have got to play better,” Lewis said. “We have got to fix it, and obviously we are not playing consistently enough for the ability of the guys we have. I know we have a lot of young guys playing but we expect a lot of guys to play better than they are playing.”

Dalton threw for 381 yards and three touchdowns Sunday, two to Green, but those numbers were inflated by the Bengals scrambling to keep themselves alive in the final seven minutes. They’re really struggling to run the ball; BenJarvus Green-Ellis is averaging just 3.0 yards per carry in the last five weeks. The defense isn’t getting off the field when it needs to.
Browns backup running back Montario Hardesty, who had zero carries in the first five games this season, ran 15 times for 56 yards Sunday.

It’s too early to say it smells like 2010, when the Bengals went from 2-1 to 2-10 and, eventually, to 4-12. The Ravens are 5-1 and atop the division, but besides the Texans the rest of the AFC is in a jumble. At 3-3, the Bengals are actually right in it. They’re just not playing like a good team, or even a pretty good one.

“The running game, the passing game, I think all of it has to be better,” Whitworth said. “We had that stretch there where our defense got all those three and outs, and we just got nothing.”

Said Lewis: “We’re learning. I feel like we are gaining lessons, we’re gaining grit, which we need because we have got to play nastier. We need to play tougher, we need to have more of a killer instinct than what we are playing with, and that’s what we need to have. We’re almost too nice at times and we’ve got to have more of a killer instinct, get going, and keep making plays, and keep scoring and keep stopping them and not have a hiccup.”

Too nice certainly won’t cut it. Too sloppy won’t, either. The Bengals have 10 games and plenty of opportunity — the next three are at home, all against 2011 playoff teams — in front of them. It’s just that right now, they’re not doing much of anything to indicate that brighter days are immediately ahead.