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The Bengals’ season is on the ropes, and they aren’t sure why

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After four seasons with 10 or more wins and five straight playoff appearances, the Bengals are struggling, and they can’t figure it out.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at New York Giants Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -– The Cincinnati Bengals are not clueless. They have won 10 or more games in each of the last four seasons. They have made the playoffs in five straight seasons.

Say what you want about the Bengals’ postseason duds, but recognize that regular-season work has been their specialty. Until now. They just slithered to a 3-5-1 record after a 21-20 loss on Monday night at the Giants.

Think about that: A one-point loss. And before that a tie vs. Washington. And before that a victory over Cleveland — but before that consecutive losses to Dallas and New England.

In fact, the Bengals’ five losses this season -– to Pittsburgh, Denver, Dallas, New England, and now the Giants -– are to teams that are among the league’s best. The Bengals’ victories are over the Jets, Miami, and Cleveland. Win one, lose two, win one, lose two, win one, tie one, lose one. It is a clear pattern. It is one the Bengals detest.

They are frustrated. They left Met Life Stadium rocked and woozy. They opened their season in the same stadium by beating the Jets. They returned for the kickoff of their final eight regular season games expecting a surge, but left perplexed. They were hoping for more. Searching for more.

Now they are just searching, period.

"This may not be the place we are used to being in, but we sure are here now," Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. "We’ve got to do something about it. I can’t wait to see this tape and see exactly what we need to fix. We made a lot of plays. We just didn’t finish the game."

So close. So far.

Big moments. Disappearing moments.

Clever execution. Juked, bamboozled.

Yes, that will get you 3-5-1.

* * *

It was a who-will-blink-first-and-most game.

The Giants won the coin toss and said forget the popular football trend of deferring to the second half. They demanded the ball. They coasted quickly to a 7-0 lead. But the Bengals didn’t initially blink. On their second play, quarterback Andy Dalton threw a 71-yard strike to tight end Tyler Eifert to the Giants 8-yard line. Two plays later it was 7-7.

The defenses dug in.

With 5:13 left in the second quarter, Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick made a leaping, fully stretched interception of Eli Manning and returned it 21 yards to the Giants 7.

It looked like the Giants had blinked. It looked like the Bengals had made the play that might turn the game their way for good. A Bengals field goal gave them a 10-7 lead. But that lead did not last long.

"The frustration is very high for me right now, because I don’t care about interceptions," Kirkpatrick said. "The only thing I care about is winning. I would trade it for the win, for sure. Yes, we’re running out of time. We dropped one today."

They blinked when with 1:17 left before halftime, when cornerback Adam Jones was seduced by receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s double move. That led to a 10-yard Beckham touchdown catch and a Giants 14-10 halftime lead.

"I feel horrible about it," Jones said. "I should have known better. I knew something like that was coming. I didn’t handle it right. I am at a loss for words to describe how I feel about that play and this loss. We needed to win this game. We should have won this game."

But they blinked. They won the third quarter, 10-6, and then were shut out in the fourth quarter. The Bengals defense allowed a fourth-down conversion pass for a Giants touchdown early. Those were the only points in the fourth quarter. The Bengals allowed the Giants to run the ball right at them late for clock-killing runs.

We are talking a Giants running game that entered ranked last in the league (68.3 rushing yards gained per game).

Yet it bruised the Bengals with 27 carries for 122 yards and produced five rushing first downs.

"We are not doing all the things we need to do to make enough plays," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "We are not making the plays to win the ballgame."

So close. So far.

Big moments. Disappearing moments.

Clever execution. Juked, bamboozled.

* * *

There is hope.

No team in the AFC North is on fire. Baltimore leads with a 5-4 record. Pittsburgh is next at 4-5. Then the Bengals at 3-5-1.

"That kind of saves us," Bengals receiver A.J. Green said. "We’re all close. It can be done. But this is hard to take, the way we are playing. We’ve got to do a better job of protecting our quarterback. We’ve got to do a lot of things better and for longer."

Here’s what’s left for the Bengals: Buffalo, at Baltimore, Philadelphia, at Cleveland, Pittsburgh, at Houston, then Baltimore.

Plenty of division matchups left for the Bengals to find their way.

Running back Giovani Bernard said he and his teammates need better execution on third downs on both offense and defense. He said he missed a block during the game, got bull-rushed, and put Dalton in jeopardy. He improved, he said. He could have done more, been better, he said. He knows "little things" are helping to cause the Bengals to blink.

Michael Johnson, the Bengals’ veteran defensive end, said he has seen seasons in Cincinnati where the team started slow and finished fast and started fast, slowed, but did not blink. He cannot wrap his mind around this 3-5-1 product.

"We can’t have our team fracture," Johnson said. "Everybody just has to do a better job in their job. We’re making plays. Just not enough plays. I mean, in your last two games, you tie a game and then lose a game by one point? How much closer can you get than that? If we just make a few more plays I think we’ll be OK. We’ve got time but it’s getting late."