Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) scores on a 10-yard touchdown reception against Cincinnati Bengals outside linebacker Emmanuel Lamur (59) during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014 in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Micha
Michael Conroy
December 08, 2014

CINCINNATI (AP) The Bengals were in good shape heading into the fourth quarter. Then it all came apart. And a day later, they were still trying to figure out exactly what had happened.

A 42-21 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday has staggered the AFC North leaders. Sure, they're still in first place in the NFL's toughest division. It's not the record but the way they're playing that's causing concern.

''All I can tell you is I felt great and then all of a sudden, 12 minutes later, I'm in my car going home going, `What the hell just happened?''' defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said on Monday.

Here's what happened: The Bengals got outscored 25-0 in the fourth quarter, gave up more than 500 yards overall for a club-record third time this season, and lost their cushion in the division race.

Cincinnati (8-4-1) is up by a half-game on Pittsburgh (8-5) and Baltimore (8-5) heading into the final three weeks. But they've got a tough closing stretch, starting with a game at Cleveland (7-6) on Sunday.

The Bengals have one more home game - against Denver (10-3) on a Monday night - followed by a game at Pittsburgh.

One more slip-up could cost them the playoffs.

''Everything is important this time of year, and we're in position where we've made it that way,'' quarterback Andy Dalton said on Monday. ''It starts this week.''

It starts with trying to figure out why they've turned into such a team of extremes. They looked like one of the best in the NFL during their 3-0 start to the season. They've been blown out in all four of their losses - two of them at home to division rivals - while playing some of the worst defense in franchise history.

Which team is it going to be in December? The one that looked like it could run away with the division, or the one that seems to run and hide in the biggest games?

''The way we lost is pretty bad,'' safety George Iloka said.

The Bengals led 21-17 heading into the fourth quarter, and then totally fell apart. Dalton's fumble on a fake handoff started the Steelers' 25-point surge. The Steelers had 229 yards in the fourth quarter alone and 543 for the game, the most against Cincinnati this season.

Cincinnati's defense has allowed 500 yards three times this season, a franchise record, according to STATS. The previous mark was two 500-yard games allowed in 1968 and 1969, when the Bengals were an expansion team.

They've given up more points (298) than they've scored this season (281).

And in four of their most important games, they've totally come apart. They lost a Sunday night game at New England 43-17. They failed to cross midfield until the fourth quarter of a 27-0 loss at Indianapolis. And they've dropped their last two home games against Cleveland 24-3 on a Thursday night and against the Steelers on Sunday.

It's the first time since 2002 - when current Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was their head coach - that the Bengals have lost consecutive home games by 21 points or more. It's the first time since 2008, when they went 4-11-1, that the Bengals have lost four games by 21 points or more.

All those very bad trends have them feeling like anything except a division leader.

''No, it definitely doesn't feel like it,'' linebacker Vincent Rey said.

Notes: The Bengals have lost their last two games in Cleveland. They haven't been swept in their two-game season series since 2002. ... Coach Marvin Lewis was noncommittal on Monday when asked whether linebacker Vontaze Burfict would return this season. Burfict hasn't played since he had surgery on Oct. 29 to clean out his left knee. ... The Bengals have to decide whether to activate quarterback AJ McCarron or leave him on an injury list for the rest of the season. The fifth-round draft pick has been sidelined since training camp with a sore passing shoulder. He was cleared to practice on Nov. 18. The Bengals had a roster exemption for him that ends this week.

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