CINCINNATI—— As they walked from the field to the locker room Sunday in the worst moment of a once-promising season that many players said they feared was all but over, the Washington Redskins struggled with the reality of a 20-13 loss to the lowly Cincinnati Bengals.
Disbelief set in along the sideline when they faced a 17-point first-half deficit against the NFL's least-productive offense, but the Redskins still thought they could salvage their playoff hopes with a strong second-half push. What occurred, however, was another disappointing finish for a team that and might be on the verge of a major makeover.
The Bengals (2-11-1) became the most recent team to outperform the Redskins (7-7) during their 1-5 slide that includes a three-game losing streak. Cincinnati — last in the league in scoring with an average of 11.8 points through its first 13 games — took control early and held off Washington's sputtering offense in front of an announced crowd of 63,996 at Paul Brown Stadium.
Even after briefly coming together in scoring 10 straight points to pull within a touchdown of the Bengals at halftime, the Redskins again lacked the finishing kick they displayed during an unexpectedly impressive start that has become a distant memory. Needing one yard for a touchdown and subsequent point-after attempt that would have tied the score, fullback Mike Sellers fumbled into the end zone, Cincinnati came up with the ball for a touchback, and Washington never recovered.
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis challenged that Sellers had scored on a second-down rush into the middle of the line, and the touchdown was reversed on review.
"We didn't think he got in," Lewis said. "I thought his progress was stopped prior to scoring."
The Redskins gave the ball to Sellers again on third down, and he fumbled. Head coach and play-caller Jim Zorn threw his challenge flag about 20 yards, but the play stood.
Running back Clinton Portis rushed six times on the drive but did not touch the ball on the final three plays.
"They had a great push," Sellers said of Cincinnati's defensive front. "By the time I got to the line of scrimmage, I pretty much had nowhere to go."
Said Zorn: "That play right there, that little drive that kept us from going in and tying the ballgame up, created a major flip" in momentum.
The Bengals went on a 16-play, 41-yard drive — place kicker Shayne Graham's 45-yard field goal extended the lead to 20-10 — as Washington's defensive problems continued in the fourth quarter. In losses to Dallas and Baltimore during the rough 1-5 stretch, Washington's defense was ineffective on key drives in the final quarter.
Against the Bengals, Shaun Suisham kicked a 36-yard field goal for the Redskins in the final two minutes, but they failed to recover his onside kick, the ball bouncing out of bounds along the right sideline. Cincinnati quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (209 yards, one touchdown pass) kneeled three times to run out the clock and push the Redskins to the brink of elimination from playoff contention.
Although the Redskins mathematically still are in the hunt for an NFC wild-card berth, qualifying for the postseason no longer is their focus. Just ending a late-season slide and playing with pride in their final two games tops the team's revised to-do list, some players said, even though their new reality is painful to accept.
"The season's over as far as the playoffs, but I think our team has a lot of character as far as going out here and playing tough the last two games," defensive tackle Lorenzo Alexander said. "Cincinnati is in the same predicament we're in now. They were out of it, and they came out there and they played ball. We've got to show what type of guys we have now and play ball. Is this where we wanted to be at this point in the season? No. But this is just where it is for us."
The loss capped a difficult week for Zorn. On Tuesday, Portis lashed out at Zorn, criticizing him for his communication and decision-making.
Zorn and Portis said they resolved their differences in a meeting Wednesday, and Washington maintained its focus on the field in an effort to revert to form, team leaders said. The Redskins expressed confidence their 6-2 start was not a fluke, and they expected to have a breakout performance on offense against Cincinnati. Privately, some players suggested Washington could score at least 30 points for the first time despite playing without injured starting tackles Chris Samuels and Jon Jansen.
With Stephon Heyer starting at left tackle and Jason Fabini and right tackle, the Redskins had only 280 yards. Portis's late dropoff in production continued as well. Portis was heavily involved in Zorn's game plan, but he had only 77 yards on 25 rushes for a 3.1-yard average. Portis had 2.0- and 2.9-yard averages in the Redskins' previous two losses.
"It's pretty tough," said Portis, who did not question Zorn's play-calling against Cincinnati. "We had opportunities to come in here and keep our season alive, and we let it slip away. We've got to find a way to finish."