HOUSTON -- The Texans were playing their first playoff game, but it looked like the Bengals were the ones who had never been in the postseason. Careless mistakes -- all self-inflicted misery -- led to 24 straight points by the Texans and a sobering 31-10 defeat Saturday to end the Bengals' surprising season.
It's the kind of effort you want to forget. It's the type of game film you burn. But the best thing the Bengals can do going forward is burn it into their memories.
Remember, the Bengals were supposed to be in the race for Andrew Luck this season, not in a playoff field pursuing the Lombardi trophy.
When the Bengals get back, they have to remember the brutal lesson taught to them at a deafening Reliant Stadium: To win in the playoffs, you have to make plays. The Bengals missed out on their first playoff win in 20 years -- the longest current streak of playoff futility in the NFL -- because Texans defensive end J.J. Watt caught the ball and Cincinnati safety Chris Crocker did not.
Watt returned his interception 29 yards for a touchdown late in the first half to give the Texans a lead they wouldn't relinquish. But Crocker dropped the chance at picking off a pass he could have returned for a score that would have tied the game in the third quarter.
"There are a lot of guys who need to take this experience and build upon it," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "I think you can look and see what the Texans have been fighting their butt off to get in this position. They keep putting players together. And they reap the benefits. We have to go beyond this."
This season has been a major success for the Bengals even though there were plenty of failures that got broadcast in their first nationally televised game of the season.
Cincinnati's run defense continued to crumble, giving up 153 yards to Houston's Arian Foster a week after allowing 191 yards to the Ravens' Ray Rice. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Foster gained 102 of those yards before getting touched by Cincinnati. Crocker made another blunder when he failed to push Foster out of bounds on a 42-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
Lewis made the head-scratcher of a decision to use both of his replay challenges in the first half. It was compounded by the fact that both challenges failed. Asked whether he was concerned about using up all of his challenges so early, Lewis said, "I wasn't worried about that."
There was even the embarrassment of getting penalized for having 12 men in the huddle on the first third-down play of the second half.
The loss meant the Bengals haven't won a playoff game in 7,768 days. The mindset in the Bengals' locker room, however, was the days ahead.
"We know we can win. We know we can win in the playoffs," defensive tackle Domata Peko said. "We’ll have a good offeseason and we’ll be back again. But this time, we’re going to make a better run. It sucks that we lost, and it’s sad. But look around this locker room -- there are a lot of young guys here. We just have to get better, and the sky is the limit."
The difference between winning and losing in the playoffs comes down to handling the pressure.
The Bengals controlled most of the first half, but everything changed in a span of less than a minute. The turning point was Dalton's interception at the line of scrimmage by Watt, who ran 29 yards for a touchdown late in the first half.
This came three plays after the Texans tied the game with a field goal. So, in a matter of 56 seconds, the Bengals went from being up by three points (10-7) to being down by seven (17-10).
"I didn't really see exactly what happened," said Dalton, who was 27-of-42 for 257 yards and three interceptions. "I just saw it got batted or whatever and then he was running the other way."
The Bengals had a chance to respond with 2:39 left in the third quarter when Crocker broke on T.J. Yates' pass and put himself in position to pick off the Texans rookie quarterback. But the ball bounced off Crocker's hands with only Yates standing between him and the end zone. It would have tied the game at 17.
"Hindsight is 20-20 now. I feel bad enough," Crocker said. "I picked that ball nine out of 10 times. This time, I didn’t pick it off when it mattered the most."
Crocked added, "I just dropped it. Maybe I was thinking of what I was going to do before I actually caught it. Who knows? It was an easy interception."
The Bengals dropped to 1-7 against teams that currently have winning records this season. But Cincinnati wasn't supposed to beat anyone this season.
The Bengals were coming off a 4-12 season that included the longest in-season losing streak in team history (10 losses in a row). Last season, they ranked 22nd in scoring and 24th in points allowed. They were considered the worst team in the NFL entering this season (Cincinnati was No. 32 in the preseason ESPN Power Rankings).
Now, Cincinnati is shooting for back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in 30 years. In order to do that, the Bengals have to prove they've learned from Saturday's brutal lesson.
"If we can hit [in the draft] like we did this year with the two special guys [Dalton and Green] we got this year, this is going to be a real special football team next year," Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "In my six years in the league, even though we ended this season in disappointment, this is the greatest upside that I’ve ever felt this team had."