- Coley Harvey, ESPN Staff Writer
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CINCINNATI -- When the Bengals broke off into their respective meeting rooms Monday and watched film from Sunday's 20-17 overtime loss at Baltimore, they saw very little worth celebrating.
Forced to reflect on the divisional defeat, the same frustrated feelings returned.
"We put ourselves in a hole real quick," safety George Iloka said. "The whole game, we were trying to get out of it."
One day after dropping a second straight game that caused them to look like a completely different team than the one that scorched through four weeks in October, the Bengals were trying to convince themselves that they will be able to get out of this latest predicament. Even though their playoff path might have gotten a little foggier with losses to Miami and Baltimore -- teams they probably should have beaten -- the Bengals keep telling themselves that path still exists, just like their AFC North lead, which now has dwindled to 1½ games.
During one meeting Monday, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden reminded the entire team that as disappointing as the past two weeks might currently feel, the Bengals have to remember they are in an enviable position.
"I told our team, 'There's eight teams in the NFL right now that can say they're in first place in a division,'" Gruden said. "We're one of them."
Cincinnati's confidence, shattered as it might be after back-to-back overtime defeats, has not completely waned.
"We're frustrated, for sure," offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "But I'm of the thinking that if it takes teams getting us into overtime and making field goals to beat us, if we can continue to make teams have to do that, eventually those things will go our way, too.
"Are you frustrated? Heck yeah. But are you also understanding that this team's going to make a team go to the wire to beat us every time we step on the field? To me, that's a great positive."
That's the way head coach Marvin Lewis has viewed the past two weeks, too. It would have been easy for him to rip into his players a day after they lost to the Ravens, but aside from remarking about how "inconsistent" quarterback Andy Dalton was in his 24-for-51, three-interception, two-touchdown showing, Lewis picked up where he left off just after the game and proudly remarked about his team's resiliency.
Specifically, he praised the Bengals for keeping close a contest that for 30 minutes looked as if it would be a rare AFC North blowout. With the Bengals down 17-0 at halftime, there was little reason for anyone to believe a comeback could occur. But it did.
Cincinnati's defense held firm in the second half, and the offense rallied for a pair of late touchdowns and a field goal. A.J. Green's game-tying, 51-yard Hail Mary touchdown reception from Dalton as time expired in regulation was the epitome of the determination his team possessed, Lewis said.
"As I told them, we can score a lot more than 17," Lewis said. "We didn't get quite there, and that's all the point is. The only thing you gain from that kind of experience is the fact that if we go out and keep doing our jobs, things will be fine."
Iloka said he got the sense his teammates shared Lewis' optimism.
"No one's panicking. No one's worried," Iloka said. "It's a loss. We feel bad about it. No one likes losing. But I don't see much panicking or any heads down because we have a tough game this week. It's always about the next game."
The Bengals can't afford to lose next Sunday's tilt against the Browns. If they do, their once-enormous division lead will shrink to a half-game and their postseason future will go from foggy to downright stormy.
Until the past two games, the Bengals and the postseason looked like a perfect match. For four weeks in October, they were considered a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Walk-off road wins at Buffalo and Detroit gave the impression this was the type of team that could win in the clutch. A 40-point thumping of the Jets seemed to solidify Cincinnati's placement among the league's most elite teams.
But since their 22-20 overtime loss at Miami, the Bengals have looked like a more inferior team. Even though they have handled quite well their slew of recent defensive injuries, Dalton and the offense haven't looked sharp. For the first time in his career, Dalton has thrown three interceptions in consecutive games and posted QBR marks worse than 20 in consecutive games. Complaints about him have existed in some parts of the fan base all season, but they have grown in intensity across the past two weeks.
Still, Dalton's faith in himself and his team hasn't wavered.
"We can't get down on ourselves," Dalton said. "There's a lot left in the season, and we can control our own fate. We are still in a very good position with a lot in front of us, and we just need to play our best."
39mJohn Keim and Adam Caplan