That's not to say they're eliminated from the postseason. That's not to say the Bengals will fail to reach the playoffs next season and the next five years after that. But Sunday's 20-19 loss -- make that punch-in-the-gut collapse -- to the Houston Texans illustrates one point: The Bengals aren't ready.
Playoff teams come through in the clutch in December. They don't allow a rookie third-string quarterback to drive 80 yards in the final minutes to score the winning touchdown.
Playoff teams finish off teams on their home turf during a playoff run. They don't squander nine-point leads in the fourth quarter. They don't let a receiver go uncovered across the middle of the field on second-and-goal in the final seconds.
It would be easy to say the Bengals looked like the Bungles. Let's not go there. The Bengals simply looked like a young team that flinched when they needed to punch back.
“It’s a defeated feeling today," safety Chris Crocker said. "I can’t even put it into words how bad this hurts, especially being in it until eight seconds left. We just had so many opportunities. I can’t even put a word on how much this hurts."
Crocker added, "It was just one of those games where there were missed opportunities time after time after time. It was our own fault. We put ourselves in bad positions. Offensively and defensively, we just made critical errors all day long. And that’s why we lost this game.”
Some might argue that this is putting too much into one game. But Marvin Lewis was the one who called this the "biggest" game of his nine-year Bengals coaching career. Instead, he suffered one of the biggest collapses. Lewis talked about a "rebirth." Instead, he watched a loss that might have killed his best coaching season.
Hey, what's that saying ... If a team falls and there is no one there to see it, does it make a sound? Ok, that's a low blow, but it's accurate. The second-smallest crowd (41,202) in Paul Brown history showed up, leaving 24,333 seats unfilled. Those empty seats matched the Bengals' empty feeling.
"As far as the team goes, they are very disappointed and I’m going to have to pump some air in them," Lewis said. "We have to make some corrections and get back on track. Before this game, we controlled our own destiny, and now I can’t tell you what is going to happen. We have to move forward and see what happens."
The Bengals entered this game with a hold on the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC. They left with a 7-6 record, one game back of the New York Jets (8-5), who grabbed the No. 6 seed away from them.
Even if Cincinnati is able to get that playoff spot back in the final three weeks, the Bengals will be a playoff team in name only. The Bengals are a team that will do damage in future seasons. They have the NFL's best rookie quarterback-receiver combination in the past two decades. They have a defense that will come back stronger with a healthy Leon Hall and Carlos Dunlap.
At this point, Cincinnati isn't on the same level as Baltimore and Pittsburgh. And the Bengals proved today that they can't beat a Texans team that is without its top two quarterbacks and star wide receiver Andre Johnson.
The Bengals are now 1-6 against teams that currently have winning records.
"It's not even about the playoffs anymore. It's about winning games," Crocker said. "We can't think about the postseason until we start winning games. It's a remote idea right now."
Everything that the Bengals did right -- a 97-yard touchdown drive, a 49-yard field goal in the final seconds of the first half and a season-high four turnovers forced -- gets lost in what the Bengals did wrong.
Cincinnati had first-and-goal at the Houston 1-yard line in the first quarter until right guard Bobbie Williams' false start (that led to a field goal instead of a touchdown). The Bengals were 1 of 3 in the red zone.
Cincinnati had a 13-point lead to open the second half until quarterback Andy Dalton was stripped from behind on the second play of the third quarter. Rookie tight end Colin Cochart couldn't block Connor Barwin, who caused the fumble inside the Bengals' 20-yard line (leading to a quick Texans touchdown).
And Cincinnati forced a fumble early in the fourth quarter, but defensive end Frostee Rucker coughed it up while trying to score. Then, Bengals safety Reggie Nelson and linebacker Manny Lawson fought over the ball, which allowed the Texans to regain control at their own 2-yard line.
Leading 19-10 at the time, the Bengals could have had the ball in the red zone and with a chance to put the game away. But three Bengals couldn't hold onto the fumble. The Texans marched 83 yards for a field goal to pull within 19-13 and set up the dramatic finish.
"That should have been one of the [turnovers] that would have helped us tremendously," Lawson said.
Their biggest downfall came on the final drive. On third-and-15, the Bengals allowed Yates to scramble for 17 yards. Then, after a 17-yard pass interference penalty on cornerback Adam Jones, they allowed the 152nd pick of the draft to throw the winning touchdown when linebacker Brandon Johnson followed tight end Owen Daniels and let Walter run free over the middle.
"A rookie quarterback beat us today," Crocker said. "I don't even know what to say. Wow. I don't even know what to say."
The Bengals are a good team. They are a promising one. But the Bengals have made it clear that they're not a playoff team.
"We knew if we came out there and outperformed them, it was a matter of time where we would get our chance to shine," Maualuga said. "But it sucks to look at that scoreboard and see that we lost by one point when we knew we had the whole game in the palm of our hands."