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Fear of Success

Expected to build on a strong '09 season, the Bengals have instead watched their '10 playoff hopes slip away

What is it with the Bengals and prosperity? They treat success like an unfaithful lover, refusing to take its calls or open the door when it comes knocking. This year Cincy was supposed to make the playoffs for the second consecutive season, something it had done only one other time since 1970. Instead, the team appears destined for another What the heck? season after losing its third game in a row on Sunday, 39--32 to the Falcons.

The Bengals upgraded their passing game in the off-season and had key defenders returning from injuries, but they're 2--4 and trail AFC North--leading Pittsburgh by three games and second-place Baltimore by two. The playoffs seem out of the question.

"Why can't we sustain success?" guard Bobbie Williams asked Sunday, repeating a reporter's question. "I just think that guys have to narrow their focus to one game at a time. If they just zoom in on the guy they're battling on a given play, we'll be O.K."

Easy to say, tough to do. The Bengals finished 10--6 and reached the playoffs last season by running the ball and playing solid defense. After throwing for only 146 yards in a 24--14 wild-card loss to the Jets, however, they signed veteran wide receiver Terrell Owens and drafted tight end Jermaine Gresham and wideout Jordan Shipley.

Carson Palmer has used his new toys to surpass the 300-yard mark in three games, including on Sunday when he threw for 412, the second most in his career. But the Bengals were 0--3 in those games.

Last year Cincinnati's offense revolved around the running game. The Bengals ranked fourth in carries (31.6) and ninth in yards (128.5) per game. This season they are 19th in carries (26.7) and 20th in yards (100.2). "I think you can make too many changes and lose your identity," says running back Cedric Benson, who has had to sacrifice the most in the Bengals' quest for greater balance.

In the two games before Sunday's, Palmer committed five turnovers (three interceptions and two fumbles) which led to 23 points. The Bengals lost by a field goal each time. Palmer shouldered the blame afterward, but part of his problem has been trying to meld two rookies into the mix—there is so much to learn in so little time—and to trust veteran receivers who are not known as precise route runners.

Do the Bengals regret seeking offensive balance? The short answer, according to Palmer, is no. "They tried to make the team better, which is what every team tries to do," he said of Cincinnati management. "We have a good group. I respect their play, I respect their effort. That's all you can ask for."

A few more wins would be nice too, but sometimes history is too formidable an opponent.

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Photograph by BOB ROSATO

AIR DROP Like Chad Ochocinco (85), who has only two TDs, the Bengals' 2010 passing offense has fallen flat.