Players wandered through after meetings Monday, subdued after reviewing their 39-32 loss in Atlanta one day earlier. Even the usually chatty receivers -- Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens -- kept their playful banter to a restrained level.
Two months into the season, there's not much to stay about a team that's fast becoming irrelevant.
The defending AFC North champions fell to 2-4 with their third consecutive loss, turning them into long shots to make the playoffs for a second season in a row. Already, they trail the Pittsburgh Steelers by three games in the division and the Baltimore Ravens by two. They're only a half-game ahead of the last-place Cleveland Browns.
The problem is that they don't play to their talent level for very long. They can look pitiful for half a game -- both the offense and defense were penalized for having 12 men in the huddle in the first half, when the Falcons pulled ahead 24-3. With Carson Palmer running a no-huddle offense, the Bengals looked like defending champs and rallied to a 25-24 lead.
Then, they fell apart again.
They've done that all season long.
"At the end of the day, it's not as bad as it looks and it's not as good as it looks," defensive tackle Tank Johnson said. "We've got to figure out how to get to .500. We're trying to climb out of this hole."
They've given no indication they're ready to start moving up.
The offense self-destructs with penalties and dropped passes. A defense that was among the league's best last season is giving up big plays. And the coaching staff hasn't been able to get things moving the right way.
It has the look and feel of a team that's not all there.
"I've got to do a better job of coaching our guys so that we're executing and we're playing poised under pressure," coach Marvin Lewis said Monday.
The offense got into its best flow of the season after falling far behind. Using the no-huddle that lets Palmer get into a rhythm, the Bengals scored on all three possessions in the third quarter. Palmer went 13-of-14 passing for 214 yards and two touchdowns in the quarter alone.
"Whatever we did in the second half, we need to start that way," said Ochocinco, who had 10 catches for 108 yards and one touchdown. "I'm not sure what it was. The game plan didn't change."
That one-quarter glimpse of greatness didn't last. Cedric Benson fumbled the next time Cincinnati had the ball, allowing Atlanta to regain control.
"At some point, we have to have a lot of pride like we did in the second half," said Owens, who had nine catches for 88 yards and one touchdown. "Surely we can be the team that everyone expected us to be as we continue in the season."
The defense gave up two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, extending another trend. The Bengals finished fourth in yards allowed last season and brought the defense back virtually intact hoping to do at least as well. Instead, it has slipped to 20th overall, failing to make the game-saving play in the final minutes.
"I think there are some differences," Lewis said. "I talked to the coaches about it this morning, and I talked to the defensive players about it. I pointed out to them where things are different, and things that they did very well last year."
The Bengals came into the season upbeat about trying to do something they'd never done -- win back-to-back division titles. They've made the playoffs in consecutive years only once, in 1981 and '82.
"Cincinnati cannot hang their heads on last year," Johnson said. "Last year is gone."
This one is nearly gone, too.
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press