The young Bengals entered Reliant Stadium for the second consecutive year seeking the franchise's first playoff win since January 1991. The Bengals were a year older and thought they were a year wiser.
However, Cincinnati repeated many of the same mistakes in a 19-13 loss to the Houston Texans. Houston advances to play the New England Patriots in the divisional round, while the Bengals enter another offseason wondering what it will take to get over the playoff hump.
"Experiences like this, you keep knocking at the wall and eventually you will knock it down," said veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth. "To keep getting in the playoffs is an accomplishment. The young guys need to realize that and take what the positives are.
"But we also need to find what we need to do better."
Cincinnati ended the regular season as one of the hottest teams in the NFL, winning seven of its last eight. But unfulfilled potential in the playoffs haunts the Bengals.
Whitworth, 31, has been in the league for seven years, all with the Bengals, and knows about the offseason pressure his younger teammates will have to endure after another failed postseason.
"Put it on me," Whitworth said sternly. "Put it on me to push [the young players] harder and get them further. I will be sure to do that."
Cincinnati can only go as far as its young core take it. As Whitworth pointed out, these Bengals still have a lot of growing up to do.
Cincinnati's youth really showed Saturday. Dropped passes, missed assignments and poor execution on third down prevented the Bengals from putting anything together. Cincinnati's ineptitude on offense is best summarized by its failure to make a single third-down conversion on nine attempts.
The only time Cincinnati led Houston was after cornerback Leon Hall returned an interception 21 yards for a touchdown to give the Bengals a 7-6 lead in the second quarter. It was the only time the Bengals reached the end zone.
Dalton failed to get Cincinnati's offense going and has yet to throw a touchdown in two playoff games. He completed just 14-of-30 passes for 127 yards and an interception. The same goes for Green, who didn't touch the ball in the first half and missed at least two big plays that could have changed the game.
Third-year tight end Jermaine Gresham also had a tough day. The Bengals wanted to get him involved in the offense early and often because they liked the mismatch with Houston’s safeties and nickel corners. However, Gresham had more drops (three) than receptions (two). He finished with two catches for seven yards.
Despite the ugliness for more than three quarters, the Bengals still had one last shot to win. Dalton got the ball at Cincinnati's 20-yard line, trailing by six points, with 6:15 remaining. If there was ever a time the Bengals to show progress, that was it.
“I was confident and telling everybody we’re going to drive down and we’re going to win this game,” Dalton said. “Everybody felt that, but we came up a little short.”
Dalton and the Bengals stalled again. He barely overthrew Green in the end zone on a play that pretty much summed up their latest playoff experience.
“This [year] is definitely more difficult,” Green said of the two postseason losses. “We felt like, even though it’s one of the worst football games we’ve played, we still had a chance to win the game. We didn’t pull it out.”
At some point, the Bengals will not be a young team, and inexperience will no longer be an excuse. Talented players such as Dalton, Green and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins have come in and raised the bar in Cincinnati. One-and-done postseasons are no longer acceptable for this talented group.
“We all need to get better. Obviously we’re not good enough,” said Bengals tailback BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who played in last year's Super Bowl with the Patriots. “Whatever we thought was good enough obviously wasn’t. We need to go back to the drawing board and win these games that we lost. It’s very disappointing.”
The foundation is set in Cincinnati. It took 30 years for the Bengals to put together back-to-back winning seasons. But the next step is also proving to be most difficult.