CINCINNATI -- During the week leading up to this past Sunday's game against Baltimore, safety Chris Crocker stood up and said what few inside his locker room would admit but everyone outside was thinking. The Bengals needed to beat a quality team.
"I feel like we really haven't stepped it up vs. teams that have really been the top tier teams in the league," he said. "It's important because it gives your teammates confidence."
As the dust cleared following a wild Sunday inside and out of Paul Brown Stadium, the Bengals were one of 12 teams left standing. Yet, the same assessment of the Bengals remained. They're still yet to beat an elite team.
"You're right," he said in the bittersweet moment following a loss to Baltimore while clinching a wild-card spot opposite Houston. "It's one of those things where now is the time, I guess."
It won't be the first time.
The defining statistic regarding Cincinnati's postseason chances stands as remarkable as it is difficult to explain. The Bengals finished the regular season 9-0 against teams that didn't make the playoffs. They were 0-7 against those that did.
Teams like the Bengals -- the youngest in the AFC -- are supposed to ride an NFL roller coaster of inconsistency capable of making the strongest stomachs of head coaches queasy. Rookies battle motivation and underestimate unknown venues. Young players flash moments of raw brilliance followed by stretches of complete confusion. Reebok might as well drop the nameplate on the back of the jersey and sew on "Unpredictable."
These Bengals bucked that trend, though. Following the lead of unshakable rookie QB Andy Dalton, no team more settled to where they belong. In a league where every team eventually floats to its level, the Bengals perfectly established their spot in the hierarchy without fluctuating.
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No breakthrough wins. No upset losses. Of course, that approach may earn a spot in the tournament, but it won't win there.
"It’s just unfortunate that we're losing to some of the better teams," defensive tackle Domata Peko said. "We've been in each of those games [and] a play or two away from winning those games."
Each defeat -- putting aside a 35-7 blowout loss at Pittsburgh -- came by one possession. Those other six losses were decided by a combined 30 points. The first meeting vs. Pittsburgh saw Dalton picked twice driving into Steelers territory looking for the tying touchdown. A week later in Baltimore, a controversial Jermaine Gresham touchdown that wasn't left the Bengals a touchdown shy again. This past Sunday, a fumble by Gresham as Cincinnati drove into Baltimore territory for the go-ahead touchdown sealed their fate.
None were worse than the first meeting with Houston on Dec. 11. Marvin Lewis called it the biggest game of his coaching career. His team played like it -- for three quarters. Yet, a convoy of Bengals couldn't fall on an easy fumble that would have all but buried the Texans. As if that weren't enough, they allowed rookie T.J. Yates to drive 163 yards the final two possessions for 10 points and throw the winning touchdown pass with two seconds left.
"I like that word finish," running back Cedric Benson said. "We could have made it very clear and came out with the win. We are really going to be focused on that."
The proximity to victory has been simultaneously the most frustrating and encouraging element of the dichotomy. They're not far off, but there's no denying zero wins in seven tries.
"I don't know what the difference is," Crocker said. "At times we show spurts of really, really good football. Then we have one bad play and it's a touchdown or it's a fumble, you kind of feel like we find a way to beat ourselves."
A feeling exists within this team that one quality victory would serve as the watershed moment. It will only take one to finally learn how to beat elite teams. That's why the disappointment felt so palpable following the loss to Baltimore. That was supposed to be the week. Sunday was supposed to be the game the young Bengals grew up and catapulted into the postseason beaming with as much confidence as momentum. Instead, the narrative sounded the same.
"It came down to one play again," tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "That's twice now with these guys. You get a third chance, that one play might go the other way."
Marvin Lewis called returning this season with his new contract a reboot of the franchise. It originally sounded like an optimistic way to spin a rebuilding year. Over one of the most eventful 12-month periods in franchise history, a team essentially gutted this offseason loaded up the answer to nearly every hurdle in their path.
Supposedly, they couldn't overcome the Carson Palmer trade demands. They did and walked away with an extra first-round pick to show for it. This team couldn't overcome starting a rookie second-round pick at quarterback. But Dalton became the first non-first-rounder to start all 16 games in NFL history. This franchise mired in losing and projected by some not to win a game certainly couldn't contend for a postseason berth. Nine wins later, they spent Black Monday watching film instead of contemplating firings. For the rebooted Bengals, only one hurdle remains unconquered. One glaring, frustrating hurdle.
This weekend they try to figure out what they haven't been able to do in seven tries.
"One of those things we have to be more sound and really, truly learn," Crocker said. "One thing about this team, we've come together and are collectively getting better and getting better as the season goes on. We show spurts of it. "If you are going to beat somebody good, now is the time; everybody we play is going to be good."