Coming off their bye week, the Bengals (2-4) quickly fell behind by three touchdowns and committed silly mistakes throughout against Atlanta. Cincinnati had two weeks to prepare for this important game but often looked as though it skipped practice and merely showed up at the Georgia Dome. The Bengals made a run in the second half, outscoring Atlanta 29-15, but didn't have enough to overcome their sloppiness.
"It hurts," Bengals safety Chris Crocker said. "All year we've kind of hurt ourselves more than the other team. Going forward, that's what we will look at. You can't afford to beat yourself and beat the other team. That's too hard; teams are too good."
Here's a partial list of Sunday's painful errors:
The Bengals had 12 players on the field twice in the first half -- once on offense and once on defense. That's inexcusable for an NFL team, especially one with playoff aspirations and two weeks to prepare. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis took the blame for the offensive penalty but seemed more upset the defense got the same flag coming out of a timeout. "We can't have that," Lewis said.
The Bengals, whose tackling and execution on defense were awful, gave up a season high for yards (452) as well as points. Falcons receiver Roddy White had 11 catches for 201 yards and two touchdowns, and tailback Michael Turner rushed for 121 yards and two more touchdowns. The Bengals were ranked No. 4 overall in total defense a year ago and returned many of the same players, but they haven’t come close to matching the play of the 2009 unit.
After the game, Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer talked about miscommunication and receivers running wrong routes. For example, on a no-huddle play, Chad Ochocinco cut his route short and Palmer threw about 20 yards too deep. The offense didn't seem on the same page until the second half. "When you're making mental mistakes, you're not in the right place, you got too many guys on the field -- whatever it may be -- the only way to overcome things like that is to keep working," Palmer said. "We have to keep trying to figure out how not to let those things happen."
Cincinnati offensive tackle Andre Smith, the sixth overall pick in the 2009 draft, didn't know the snap count twice and had two costly false start penalties. The Bengals had seven penalties total.
With Cincinnati trying to rally with about nine minutes left in the fourth quarter, tailback Cedric Benson fumbled untouched at Atlanta's 40 while trying to make a move on the defender. That was the last legitimate chance the Bengals had for a comeback.
The Bengals also didn't win enough one-on-one matchups, particularly on defense. Each detail is minor until it snowballs, and that's when it becomes a major issue.
The Bengals have been dealing with these problems for more than a year, but this season it's costing them games. With the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-1) and Baltimore Ravens (5-2) running away in the AFC North division, the Bengals can't afford more losses. For Cincinnati to go 10-6 with a good shot at the postseason, it must go 8-2 the rest of the way against a tough first-place schedule. In Weeks 8 and 9, the Bengals play host to the Miami Dolphins (3-3) and Steelers.
"I know a lot of people around us, if they haven't given up yet, they're about to give up on us," Palmer said. "We're not going to do that. ... We expect to be written off, but we're not going to write ourselves off."
Cincinnati, one of the league's biggest disappointments, has playoff-caliber talent but too often executes like a five-win team. So who do you blame and how do you fix it? Is it the fault of the coaching staff? Are penalties and lack of execution on the players or a combination of both?
"I have no idea," said Ochocinco, one of many players in a sullen locker room who didn't have answers.
Cincinnati, just 3-8 in its past 11 games, hasn't had back-to-back winning seasons in 28 years. Barring a sudden turnaround, that streak will continue ... all because the Bengals don't take care of the little things.