It's déjà vu all over again for Cincinnati.
Sunday's 26-10 wild-card loss to the Indianapolis Colts raises plenty of the same questions that have haunted quarterback Andy Dalton and coach Marvin Lewis since joining forces in 2011.
Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson came out of the gate with an admirable, creative game plan to help mask the absence of wideout A.J. Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham. Minus his top two pass-catchers, Jackson leaned on a rash of extra linemen and unbalanced sets to fortify rookie Jeremy Hill and the ground game.
The plan worked beautifully on a nine-play, 74-yard touchdown march in the first quarter that tied the score at seven. The Bengals saw early production from a swath of unexpected contributors, with running back Rex Burkhead making plays in a Danny Woodhead-type role, defensive lineman Domata Peko lining up at fullback and backup guard Mike Pollak seeing snaps as an extra lineman to counter Indy's active front.
The problem with the Bengals, though, remains unchanged. When it came down to Dalton lifting the offense out of dark corners, his arm failed them. Without Green to bail him out on passing downs, Dalton struggled to make the same clutch throws we saw Andrew Luck complete all afternoon. Cincy opened the second half with five straight punts, holding to the script of a Lewis-coached squad that has scored just six points in the second half of their last four playoff games.
It wasn't just Dalton. While the secondary made its share of plays, this effort felt doomed when it became obvious the Bengals couldn't generate a hint of pass rush on Luck. The Colts saw the same, quickly abandoning the run to help Luck throw for 376 yards on 44 attempts. Luck would have piled up even more had T.Y. Hilton not dropped a trio of first-half passes. The star wideout still finished with 103 yards on the day.
The Bengals can point to an injury-ravaged roster to explain their latest postseason collapse, but that would dance around the issue. Dalton on Sunday tied an NFL record for the most consecutive playoff losses by a quarterback to start his career. He joins Y.A. Tittle in that department, but their on-field comparisons end there.
Where Luck and the league's better signal-callers will their teams to victory, Dalton's ceiling keeps the Bengals on the outside looking in.
It's hard to justify signing up for another year of the same.
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