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Bengals ran fade route this season

CINCINNATI — Call it the year of the fade.

The Cincinnati Bengals got their long-suffering fans excited by starting the season with a franchise first, sweeping the rest of the AFC North to win the division title. Then, with a chance to make their surprising season something special, they faded away by losing four of the last five.

A 24-14 loss to the New York Jets in a wild-card game on Saturday extended their streak without a playoff win to 19 years and counting.

"This is only the start, only the beginning," linebacker Brandon Johnson said.

Maybe.

Or, maybe it was only a blip, a season when things went their way enough times to get them to the playoffs for only the second time since 1990. The franchise's track record isn't promising that way — they've reached the playoffs in consecutive seasons only once in their history, back in 1981-82.

To break that streak, they've got a lot of work to do on offense.

The high-energy passing game that got them to the playoffs in 2005 is a thing of the past. The Bengals decided to become a run-oriented team this season, and it got them to the playoffs but no farther. Their inability to throw the ball caught up with them in the end.

Carson Palmer went 1-for-11 for no yards in a 37-0 loss to the Jets at the Meadowlands that ended the regular season, then was 18-for-36 for 146 yards with a touchdown and an interception in the playoff loss.

His receivers weren't much help, and that's the biggest problem the Bengals need to fix in the off-season. They lost their two top tight ends to injury during training camp and weren't able to replace dependable third-down receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who left as a free agent.

By the end, Chad Ochocinco was the only dependable receiver, and he was rarely open because of double and triple coverages.

"We need to keep putting key pieces around (Palmer) to enable him to utilize his skills as much as we can," Coach Marvin Lewis said.

The defense was the team's strength, but it faded at the end with key players hurt.

"The games got tougher and tougher down the stretch," defensive tackle Tank Johnson said. "We just didn't finish the season."

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