CINCINNATI – The rain arrived in the second half, cold, hard and miserable. Meteorologically, it spoke to a bigger storm coming – colder, harder and even more miserable.
Andy Dalton was already in the middle of his meltdown by then. He had two interceptions, one fumble and three sacks taken in a nightmare stretch of play. It propelled San Diego to a come-from-behind, 27-10 wild-card victory and ended another of the Bengals' once promising, potential breakthrough, seasons.
By the time Dalton jogged off the field, winter smacking down on his helmet, Paul Brown Stadium was essentially empty, a fan base that's almost numb to these stomach-punch endings long resigned to this one. They didn't even bother staying to boo and jeer anymore.
This was Cincinnati's third consecutive year with a wild-card round loss, each of them quarterbacked by Dalton who is responsible for seven turnovers and just one touchdown in those games. This was the franchise's fifth one-and-done postseason in Marvin Lewis' 11 seasons as head coach.
This was, perhaps, a turning point for all involved.
"Tough day," Lewis said.
"This game hurts," Dalton said.
"Extremely frustrating," lineman Andrew Whitworth said. "But the truth is we didn't play well another time we needed to and we deserve the criticism we'll get."
Oh, they'll get it, both locally, where fans appear ready to go nuclear, and nationally, where the Bengals will be brushed off again as just the Bengals. The good feelings of an 11-5, AFC North-winning season were gone, just like that.
The question is whether anyone inside the organization will go too. The Bengals are a famously patient organization (to put it nicely). Lewis is the second-longest tenured coach in the league behind New England's Bill Belichick. Only one of them has won three Super Bowls, reached two others and annually delivers a contender.
Whether this is enough for a regime change remains to be seen; Lewis didn't appear nervous about his job postgame. Whether Dalton's continued postseason struggles – both picks and the fumble were avoidable – leads the team to make a move on a quarterback in the draft will be determined in the spring.
After this debacle the emotions and frustrations were apparent; definitive answers about why Cincinnati can't get over the hump were not.
This was the game Cincinnati had pointed to winning all season – all offseason even. HBO's "Hard Knocks" broadcast training camp to showcase a team on the brink of something big. The Bengals finally got a home playoff game. San Diego was a team they'd beaten on the road in December and were supposedly ill prepared for the hostile conditions that was to come.
And then in the second half Sunday, despite a 10-7 lead, the Bengals got taken to the woodshed.
"This game could've been much worse score than it was," Whitworth acknowledged, citing a spirited defensive effort.
What needs to change, he was asked? The big offensive lineman stood in front of his locker and said he wasn't sure specifically, but something does.
"I just know that whatever it takes you have to do it to move forward," Whitworth said. "There has to be a mentality. Probably looking at the teams that are really good in the postseason, how do they change? San Diego came in with a great plan, possess the football, run it and try to have short third downs they could convert."
Dalton said he was willing to take the criticism – "take every shot at me," he said. But he noted, "a lot of that goes on during the game."
Lewis, meanwhile, said he hadn't lost faith in Dalton, but "obviously the biggest difference was turnovers." (Rookie running back Gio Bernard also fumbled near the goal line.)
"I'm disappointed," Lewis said. "I'm disappointed by us."
No one was pointing fingers, per se, but no one wasn't pointing fingers either.
After three years of falling short, there were no cocksure answers or promises of better next time, and perhaps that will be the most disconcerting thing for ownership. The Bengals looked out of ideas, left in pure puzzlement at a game and a season lost.
"We were a good football team," Whitworth said. "Today we weren't a very good football team."
Dalton offered a hopeful reminder about experience gained, but this isn't the lesson you want to keep learning. Take care of the ball. Be fundamentally sound. Don't beat yourself. Protect the lead.
"We have to outplay the opponent," Lewis said. "Point blank. There are no special words for it or anything. You just have to go and outplay. You just keep doing it. We've got to keep climbing the mountain; we're not going to quit climbing it. We've got to get there and push and get it done."
Easy to say, which is why it's been said, three years (or 11) running now. Now Lewis needs to convince everyone that his climb should continue.
As the interviews wound down, and the finality and hurt set in, the weather outside grew in intensity, the temperature dropping fast, the rain dropping faster.
A winter storm was coming hard to Cincinnati and there wasn't any way to stop it.