CLEVELAND (AP) — Marvin Lewis spent about 60 seconds summing up his team’s latest loss. Hue Jackson was nowhere to be found.
At this point, there’s not much left to say — the Cincinnati Bengals are a mess.
A last-place mess.
By losing for the sixth time in seven games, the Bengals locked up their first finish at the bottom of the AFC North since 2011 on Sunday with a 26-18 defeat to the Cleveland Browns, who swept the season series between the Ohio rivals and continued the biggest turnaround in franchise history.
The Bengals, meanwhile, are spiraling downward.
“It is very frustrating,” said running back Joe Mixon, the team’s only healthy, legitimate offensive threat. “I have never been a part of a losing program. I am never going to get comfortable with being part of it. At the end of the day, I am going to take it for what it is this year, build, and try to get better and get ready for next year. We still have another week coming up. It is a big one. I promise you, we are not going to be in this for long — and that is a fact.”
After a 4-1 start, the Bengals (6-9) were envisioning another probable playoff run under Lewis before the bottom dropped out.
Now, owner Mike Brown has to have legitimate concerns about his team’s direction after the Browns (7-7-1), who thumped the Bengals last month in Cincinnati, built a 26-3 lead before giving up a pair of late touchdowns that made the scoreboard look more respectable than anything that happened on the field.
Of course, there are reasons for Cincinnati’s collapse, starting with season-ending injuries to quarterback Andy Dalton and star receiver A.J. Green. However, there’s no justification for minus-15 yards passing in the first half, blown coverages, missed tackles or mental mistakes.
The mood bordered on anger in the Bengals’ locker room afterward. This is not where they wanted to be.
“It is what it is,” Mixon said. “People can make a lot of excuses on why we finished last. At the end of the day, we have to come to work every day to work. If you are not doing that, you are not going to get the results you want. For me, I’m going to keep on coming, ready to play for 60 minutes each and every week and finish this last week strong.”
Quarterback Jeff Driskel, who threw a pair of TD passes in a two-minute stretch in the fourth, said it’s time for Bengals players to be accountable.
“I don’t think you look at the roster. I think you have to look at yourself, ‘What can I do better to prevent this in the weeks and seasons to come?,'” said Driskel, who had just 3 yards passing in the first half. “Obviously, we came into the season thinking that we were going to be able to win this division. We go into every game thinking that we’re going to win the football game. So, we have to find a way to win tight football games. We have one more this season, and we’re going to do everything we can to get a win so we can end the season on a win.”
For Jackson, his return to Cleveland couldn’t have gone much worse.
Fired on Oct. 29 after winning just three of 40 games in two-plus seasons with the Browns, Jackson was re-hired by Lewis as a special assistant. It may only be a coincidence, but the Bengals’ crash began shortly after Jackson’s arrival.
With the Browns clinging to their eight-point lead, rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield completed a daring, game-clinching, 66-yard pass to tight end David Njoku and then jogged down the field staring in Jackson’s direction. Mayfield was angered by Jackson’s decision to join a division rival so soon after his Cleveland tenure ended.
It was the final insult on a day of them for the Bengals, who may have to deal with Mayfield for another decade.
“I’ve been playing Baker for years,” Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard said. “He’s a competitive dude and he talks a lot, but obviously he backs it up. The way to get him to quiet down is to beat him, and that’s what we have to do.”