Are the Bengals really ready for prime time?

The Steelers outmuscled Gio Bernard and the Bengals, who fell to 1-2 in prime time this season. Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports

PITTSBURGH -- It was exactly what the Cincinnati Bengals wanted.

With a national television audience watching, the scenario they were presented Sunday night at Heinz Field was precisely the one they requested at the end of November, back when they first started expressing desires about closing out the regular season on a five-game winning streak. Desperate to convince anyone outside their locker room that they were legitimate playoff contenders, the Bengals knew an undefeated December and a win on the Sunday night stage would turn some heads.

Some heads are currently turning, all right. But not in the direction the Bengals really want. Instead of continuing to turn out of curiosity, those heads are starting to turn away. Days after becoming the talk of the AFC, rightful skepticism about the Bengals will start settling in. Are the Bengals who we thought they were? Are they really ready for prime time?

You can blame two groups for that: the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Bengals themselves.

In an effort to restore some order to an AFC North that had been flipped upside down through the first 14 weeks of the regular season, the Steelers turned into Week 15 bullies Sunday, physically and savagely imposing their will during their 30-20 win against an outmatched Bengals team that looked out of place and out of sorts, despite a valiant comeback bid.

Yet again, in another big game, the Bengals appeared to fold.

"It depends on what your definition of a big game is," Bengals receiver Andrew Hawkins said. "Is it a big game because it's on TV? Because I don't think any of us think that. We've been playing on TV our whole lives."

Well, OK. Maybe a big game doesn't just mean the bright lights of national television. Maybe prime time doesn't fully equate to games played on Sunday, Thursday or Monday nights (even though the Bengals are now 1-2 on games played those nights this season). But division games certainly are part of the big-game mix. And the playoffs are, too. In recent years, the Bengals haven't been great at either one of those.

The Bengals are now 7-10 in divisions games the past three seasons and 2-3 in games played on Monday, Thursday or Sunday nights in unopposed time slots. Two of those three night losses were against the Steelers. The latter two of those three -- Sunday's and another against the Dolphins earlier this season -- came on the road.

Why is any of that important? Because again, the playoffs, that end-of-year, single-elimination stretch of must-win games, are a concept one generation of Bengals fans don't fully understand. No Bengals team since 1990 has advanced out of the first round of the playoffs, and this year's group looks like the franchise's best chance to reverse that trend.

The high-stakes nature of playoff games make them the ultimate prime-time, pressure-packed scenarios. When they occur on the road, it all increases that much more.

For those reasons, when teams, particularly those as talented and deep as the Bengals, have opportunities to practice winning such ballgames in the regular season, they have to win them.

Against the Steelers, though, Cincinnati didn't really have much of a shot.

A bobbled first-quarter punt snap that ended up giving Pittsburgh the ball on the Bengals' 1, which was followed by a long Bengals kick return that was called back because of a fair-catch wave that raised debate, began a series of unfortunate events for Cincinnati. When punter Kevin Huber was knocked from the game late in the first quarter by a hard, blindside hit that broke his jaw, the snowball swelled.

"It was like, 'Man, one thing after another,'" cornerback Chris Crocker said. "It's just disappointing how this game got away from us so early. That was the most disappointing thing. We were just fighting to save our face and get back into it."

On the same play Huber was knocked out of the game, Steelers punt returner Antonio Brown sprinted nearly untouched for a 67-yard score that pushed Pittsburgh's lead to 21-0.

From there, Cincinnati's defense buckled down and allowed only nine points, and the offense rallied. But it was all too little, too late.

"We didn't make anything happen," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "If you don't play good, you're going to get beat. If you don't make things happen, you're going to lose the football game. That's what happened."

Some of his players felt they didn't come out early with the same fire they had by the end of the game. Pittsburgh had the edge on intensity and energy and didn't give it up, they felt.

Hours before the game, one would have imagined the teams to be in a different state. With nothing else to do early in the day, many Bengals watched as the Miami Dolphins held on to beat the New England Patriots. That result meant Cincinnati, with a win, could take over the No. 2 AFC seeding position from the Patriots. If the Bengals had won, they would have fully controlled their playoff seeding fate. Now they need help to claim a first-round bye.

But if you hear them tell it, that's not what's important.

"Was it a [lost opportunity] to get to where we want to go? No. Lose an opportunity to put ourselves in a better position? Yeah," Hawkins said. "All our goals are still intact. We didn't come into this season as a goal to be a 2-seed. We came in wanting to win a Super Bowl. As long as we can win a Super Bowl, we're in good shape."

That helps explain their continued optimism on the remainder of the season.

"We lost the football game," defensive end Michael Johnson said. "But now we're going to come back and win two in a row at home and go into these playoffs and wreak havoc."

In that case, the Bengals better hope prime time in the postseason goes much differently than it has in the regular season.