This was always shaping up to be a market-correction season for the Bengals. All of the free-agent talent defections and all of the brain drain from the coaching staff and all of the years of picking near the bottom of the first round were bound to catch up with Cincinnati.

Back in the preseason, I forecast a significant regression for the franchise after an unprecedented five consecutive years in the postseason. But even I didn't think it would become quite this bleak, this soon. I figured losing Hue Jackson -- on the heels of losing Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer to become head coaches elsewhere -- would present real challenges. And having star tight end Tyler Eifert injured for the first half of the season, after letting receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu depart, was going to make life very difficult for quarterback Andy Dalton. The offensive line was starting to get long in the tooth, recent draft picks weren't showing signs of being difference makers and the defense, I believed, would slip, too.

But man, I didn't think the Bengals would be this inept. I didn't think they would suffer from one ailment after the next. I didn't think the defense and offense would be this bad. I didn't think that in a year in which the league was largely watered down and with so few power teams in the AFC -- and the AFC North in particular as poor as I can remember it -- the Bengals would stand out as one of the dregs. I didn't think they would be flirting with the postseason ... but I also didn't think they would win only three of the first 10 games. Only the lowly Browns and Jags have fewer wins in this conference.

As it stands, after a humbling home defeat to the Bills, this team is lacking an identity. The Bengals came out of their bye looking listless and lethargic and have a mere total of 564 net yards of offense in successive losses to the Giants and Bills. Against a Bills secondary that has been awful, the Bengals put up little resistance. The defensive line lacks bite and the offensive line -- once the strength of the club -- has become a concern.

The Bengals are no longer a team that finds ways to win at home, and now they face the prospect of being without dynamic A.J. Green -- a playmaker for the ages -- for perhaps the duration of the season after he was carted off early Sunday with a hamstring injury. Green has twice as many catches and roughly 600 more yards than any other receiver on the roster.

All the key departures of top assistants have caught up to Marvin Lewis in Cincy. USATSI

Make no mistake, next Sunday at Baltimore is a must-win game for the Bengals. But as you watched Marvin Lewis searching for answers after the game, he seemed as befuddled by this turn of events as anyone else. If it's not the offense, for half of the game, then it's the defense for the other half. Or special teams -- the Bengals missed two extra points Sunday in a 16-12 loss.

"I'm not quite able to get us over the hump with those things," Lewis said at one point during his press conference, adding later "it goes from one side to the other," in regards to the shifting nature of his team's problems.

They continue to be dogged by some poor decision-making and penalties, and each week it gets a little harder to stomach guys like Vontaze Burfict running all over the field, hitting guys cheap and late, playing with a dirty edge that is going to end up getting him and someone else injured. They just can't sustain or string together any meaningful sequences of overall strong play yet to win consecutive games.

On Sunday, the Bills could do nothing through the air, yet still stayed in the game by dominating on the ground. Buffalo rushed for 186 yards despite not having LeSean McCoy for the second half. Once again, the Bengals could do little when it mattered most through the air -- they have only 11 passing touchdowns this season. They entered Week 11 ranked 28th in third-down conversions and 22nd in total scoring. The pass rush has been tame this season (they entered Sunday ranked 23rd in sacks) and only three teams had yielded more touchdown passes.

A year ago, the Bengals were flirting with the top seed in the AFC, and now I can't help but think this is a team with a closing window, at least as we have come to know them. Some who know owner Mike Brown well believe he will stick with Lewis as his head coach no matter what, as loyal as they come, even with this looking like yet another year in which the Bengals fail to win a playoff game. Others maintain Lewis will move up to the front office at some point, and perhaps defensive coordinator Paul Guenther will get a shot as head coach, lest he soon enough become the latest Lewis assistant to take the reins elsewhere.

Nothing lasts forever in this league, a tenant of the NFL no one could argue with, and the Bengals' run as perennial AFC playoff factors is nearing its close. They still have not won a postseason game since 1990. And while they still have some prime talent in the prime of their careers, it's clear this roster also isn't what it used to be.