Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis watches during the first half of his team's NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns on Thursday, Nov. 6, 2014, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)
AJ Mast
November 07, 2014

CINCINNATI (AP) Coach Marvin Lewis stayed up until 3 a.m. watching video of his Bengals' latest prime time meltdown. He took a two-hour break and then went back to watching it all over again.

It didn't look any better the second time. Or the third time.

And there's no ready explanation or fix for any of it, either. A 24-3 loss to Cleveland at Paul Brown Stadium has reminded everyone that the Bengals (5-3-1) not only can't win the high-profile games, they can't even hold it together.

''We lost a football game, we didn't fall off a cliff,'' Lewis said Friday, in a raspy voice that reflected a lack of sleep.

In a sense, they did. From the opening series on Thursday night, the Bengals looked like Wile E. Coyote doing another long, slow descent before finishing in a poof of smoke. They fell apart every which way:

- Andy Dalton completed only 10 passes, threw three interceptions and had a passer rating of 2.0.

- The defense got run over for 170 yards by a Browns team that had managed 158 yards rushing total in the previous three games.

- Lewis got run over on the sideline by Dre Kirkpatrick as the cornerback was covering a punt.

No wonder there was so little sleep in Cincinnati.

''I haven't slept, nope,'' offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said, sitting behind his desk at noontime. ''You unwind every now and then, but that one would make you not sleep very well.''

What's keeping them wide awake is the fact that they thought the defending AFC North champions were beyond this point. The Bengals opened the season 3-0 and were the NFL's last unbeaten team before heading into a Sunday night game in New England that everyone saw as one of those signature moments.

Result: A 43-17 drubbing that they wrote off as simply Tom Brady and the desperate-to-win Patriots doing what they've done to so many other teams, too.

They also wrote off a 27-0 loss at Indianapolis two weeks later as an aberration. The Bengals were just getting adjusted to missing top receiver A.J. Green, bothered by a toe injury. Yet the fact that they failed to even cross midfield until the fourth quarter raised some alarms.

The drubbing on Thursday night made them realize there's a lot more to it. And they're without explanations for why it happens again and again. The Bengals are 18-41 all-time in prime time.

''I am surprised,'' said Dalton, who was 10 of 33 for only 86 yards. ''I didn't think that we were going to come out and play like we did.''

Or, as Green put it: ''This one has me speechless.''

Cincinnati slipped to third in the AFC North, with Cleveland and Pittsburgh tied atop the division at 6-3. The Bengals now enter the toughest part of their schedule with five of their last seven games on the road. They play at New Orleans, at Houston and at Tampa Bay in the next three weeks.

How to they fix the mess?

The Bengals were hoping that things got better on offense when Green returned after missing three games because of an injured right big toe. He was in for little more than half the plays during a 33-23 win over Jacksonville last Sunday, catching three passes for 44 yards.

Green was on the field for 88 percent of the plays on Thursday. Joe Haden shut him down again, limiting Green to three harmless catches for catches 23 yards. Green is clearly not all the way back from the injury, which is expected to bother him for the rest of the season.

The Bengals have been missing several other key players. Receiver Marvin Jones will miss the entire season with a broken foot and injured ankle. Running back Giovani Bernard missed the last two games with hip and shoulder injuries.

Tight end Tyler Eifert hurt his right elbow in the season opener and was put on injured reserve with a chance to return at midseason. Lewis said on Friday that Eifert isn't healthy enough to play and could miss the rest of the season.

''We're obviously not going to risk Tyler's future for any part of this season right now until he's completely 100 percent healthy to be able to do his job,'' Lewis said.

And then there's Dalton, who added to his legacy of playing his worst games when the stakes are highest. He's 0-3 in the playoffs and now 2-6 in prime time games during the regular season.

''There are times they look very good - you guys know it and have written it, have talked about it,'' Jackson said. ''There are times we've looked very, very bad. Last night was one of those times.

''He is the centerpiece of it all. I'm not running from that. I don't think he's running from that. He's the key. He'll bounce back.''

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