Everything had fallen right into place Sunday for the Bengals.
The AFC North-leading Ravens took one on the chin early in the afternoon, finishing on the wrong end of a 43-13 score in Houston. Longtime nemesis and division rival Pittsburgh then came to Cincinnati battered and bruised, missing several key pieces on offense and defense. And the Bengals hopped out to a 14-3 lead in front of their home crowd.
Then, before you could say "Marvin Lewis loses another challenge," all that momentum was gone.
The exact moment that things fell apart for the Bengals in their frustrating 24-17 Sunday night loss is tough to pinpoint -- there were plenty of options. But let's start here: With the Bengals up 14-6 and about 80 seconds left in the first half, Andy Dalton changed his mind as he went to throw a pass. The ball slipped out of his hand anyway, bounced off the helmet of a Bengals lineman and wound up in the arms of Pittsburgh's LaMarr Woodley.
The Bengals came out after the break and drove for a field goal, but they never fully recovered the momentum they lost. When Pittsburgh finally took the lead on a Chris Rainey touchdown at the 14:16 mark of the fourth quarter, that seven-point lead felt insurmountable. When you look at the game's final stats, you can understand why.
Pittsburgh finished with 431 yards to Cincinnati's 185. The Steelers outrushed the Bengals, 167-80, and outgained them through the air, 264-105.
All that despite the Steelers missing their top two running backs (Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman) and their center (Maurkice Pouncey), plus Mike Wallace dropping passes like the football was covered in thorns.
The Bengals came out on their first drive and stuffed the ball down the Steelers' throats -- Cedric Peerman's 5-yard TD run capped a 15-play, eight-minute march that included eight runs by BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Cincinnati then started the second quarter by forcing back-to-back Ben Roethlisberger turnovers, the second of which set up a Dalton-to-A.J. Green touchdown.
But the Bengals could not finish. Heck, they couldn't even think about finishing because their train derailed so rapidly.
Perhaps the most alarming part of that collapse was the Bengals' inability to get the ball to Green, their biggest playmaker. His eight-yard TD grab was his only catch of the night and Dalton targeted him just a handful of times, allowing the oft-picked-on Ike Taylor and some deep safety help to totally eliminate one of the NFL's best receivers.
Without Green's dominating presence downfield, Dalton barely topped 100 yards and Green-Ellis' run lanes quickly dried up.
"It was just a sense of urgency," Steelers DB Ryan Clark said when asked about changed over the game's final three quarters. "We kind of understood what they were going to do to us."
You can say that again.
Sunday's loss dropped Marvin Lewis to 5-15 in his career against the Steelers and just 1-10 at home. Those numbers, as much as Cincinnati's 2012 record and the current AFC North standings, underscored the importance of Sunday night's game.
They opened the season by enduring a 44-13 beatdown in Baltimore, putting them in an early divisional hole. A win Sunday at least would have allowed them to hold serve in the AFC North (the Bengals finished 1-1 against the Browns).
But if Lewis and the Bengals cannot get past Pittsburgh -- and, especially, can't get past this Pittsburgh team, which thus far has been a depleted shell of its former self -- then how can they expect to play a role in the AFC North race?
Cincinnati crept into the playoffs last season with a 9-7 record. Given the current state of the AFC, which boasts all of three teams over .500, a 9-7 mark might be good enough again.
Waiting at the end of the season, though, is a road game at Pittsburgh in Week 16 and a home game vs. the Ravens to close out the year. As far as the AFC North's head-to-head matchups have gone thus far, the Bengals have established themselves as the clear third team on the totem pole, behind those two.
Something has to change for the Bengals to shake that perception. The whole AFC North world was placed on a platter for them Sunday night. All they had to do was finish what they started against the Steelers. Their failure to do so leaves the Bengals in a world of hurt before the regular season even hits its halfway mark.