A late-December collapse kept the Cincinnati Bengals from making the playoffs last year. How they finish the final month of this season likely won’t matter with their postseason fate all but sealed.
On pace for a second straight disappointing season, the Bengals look to bounce back from another frustrating loss when they host the St. Louis Rams on Sunday.
Cincinnati (4-8) fell 24-10 at AFC North Division rival Pittsburgh last Sunday night as it again failed to win consecutive games for the first time in 2007.
The Bengals, who are three games out of the final AFC wild-card spot and have 10 teams in front of them in the conference standings, need to win their final four games just to finish 8-8 for the second straight season and fourth time under coach Marvin Lewis. Cincinnati is headed for its 16th non-winning season in its last 17.
Last season, the Bengals lost their final three games and failed to make the playoffs, one year after finishing 11-5 and winning the division. Of Cincinnati’s final four opponents this season, only Cleveland has a winning record, but victories likely won’t come easy for the underachieving Bengals.
“I think sometimes some of our problem is we don’t always have a team attitude,” Cincinnati defensive end Justin Smith said. “I think the best teams really don’t care about any of that (statistical rankings). They care about winning. And we’re not there yet.”
The Bengals rank seventh in the NFL with 351.8 yards and 24.2 points per game, but were held to their fewest points of the season last Sunday. Despite forcing four turnovers, they had 249 total yards - their lowest since posting 236 in a 27-20 season-opening victory over Baltimore.
“It’s a loss that doesn’t sit well with us,” Lewis said. “We just didn’t get things done. We had some chances.
“As a staff, we have to coach better. We weren’t as consistent in areas as we need to be.”
Chad Johnson, fourth in the league with 1,127 receiving yards, caught six passes for 86 yards and no touchdowns against the Steelers. Johnson had seven receptions for 115 yards in Cincinnati’s 27-10 loss at St. Louis on Dec. 21, 2003 in the teams’ most recent meeting.
Teammate T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the NFL leader with 88 receptions, was held to five for a season-low 42 yards last Sunday and failed to score a TD for the second straight week.
Cincinnati’s lone score came on a 1-yard run by struggling running back Rudi Johnson, who despite recording a TD in his second straight game, rushed for 34 yards on 14 carries - one week after rushing for 88 in a 35-6 win over Tennessee on Nov. 25.
Carson Palmer, meanwhile, was 17-for-44 for a season-low 183 yards last Sunday and failed to throw a touchdown pass for the second time this season.
Palmer, who has thrown five TDs and five interceptions in his last three contests, needs one touchdown pass in his 58th career game Sunday to become the fifth-fastest player to reach 100.
Palmer will make his first appearance against St. Louis (3-9), which despite being headed for its third straight season without a winning record, has won three of four since starting 0-8.
The Rams, who beat Atlanta 28-16 last Sunday for their first home win, again might be without starting quarterback Marc Bulger after he missed that game with a concussion suffered in a 24-19 loss at Seattle on Nov. 25.
Bulger, who has played nine games and thrown for 1,789 yards with six touchdowns and nine interceptions, was cleared to practice this week but had a setback in his recovery.
“We’re not going to put anybody who is not 100 percent in harm’s way,” coach Scott Linehan said. “After I gather the information, I’ll make a decision if (Bulger) will be our starting quarterback or if he’ll be up at all.”
Bulger was 24-for-38 for 229 yards with two touchdowns in the 2003 victory over the Bengals.
Steven Jackson rushed for 96 yards and a touchdown last Sunday for the Rams, who matched a season high with 409 total yards. Jackson’s averaging 92.6 yards in his last three contests.
Torry Holt looks for another strong game after making six catches for a season-high 135 yards and a TD against Atlanta. Holt, who needs 56 yards to reach 1,000 for an eighth consecutive season, had 10 receptions for 124 yards and a touchdown in the Rams’ last meeting with Cincinnati.
St. Louis has won its last three against the Bengals, including 38-10 on Oct. 3, 1999 in the most recent matchup in Cincinnati.