AP Sports Writer
CINCINNATI — The Bengals got home shortly before sunrise and watched a little video of their latest loss, one that reminded them they’re missing more than just sleep.
The best start in franchise history has been followed by back-to-back losses that loosened their hold on the AFC North and left them at one of those turning points that come each season.
“The best football starts getting played now in November and December and January,” offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said on Monday during a sleepless day at Paul Brown Stadium.
“You have to get hot. You have to catch your groove back again so that you can be one of those teams that can be hitting the stride at the right time.”
The Bengals (8-2) are stumbling in a lot of ways.
Two weeks ago, they had a four-game lead in the loss column over second-place Pittsburgh. The back-to-back losses have given the Steelers (6-4) a chance to get back into the AFC North race. Pittsburgh is coming off a bye and has a game in Cincinnati on Dec. 13.
Cincinnati’s problems have come in all areas.
A defense that had given up the fewest points in the NFL got taken apart in the second half of a 34-31 loss at Arizona on Sunday night. Carson Palmer led a drive to the winning field goal in the final 58 seconds without a timeout.
An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on defensive tackle Domata Peko — for simulating a snap count to draw the Cardinals offside — set up the winning 32-yard kick. Peko declined to comment on the call Monday, noting that coach Marvin Lewis has told players not to publicly discuss officials’ decisions.
Lewis repeatedly declined to discuss the penalty on Monday, a day after he called it a “phantom call” and “kind of ridiculous.”
The offense wasted a couple of chances to help finish off the Cardinals as well. Dalton missed open receivers a couple of times with chances to make long completions. And the Bengals took a gamble that didn’t pay off on their final drive.
With a third-and-2 at the Arizona 25-yard line and 1:14 left, Jackson called a play that had Dalton throw down the right sideline to A.J. Green. The pass was underthrown and deflected, and Green came down with it out of bounds.
The Bengals then tied it with Mike Nugent’s 43-yard field goal.
The Cardinals didn’t have a timeout left, so a running play on third down would have made an even bigger dent in the time left.
Instead of running the ball and taking the field goal and the tie, Jackson wanted to take their best shot at a touchdown.
“So you’ve got your best player out on the field and the safety is standing in the middle of the field, so you’ve got to take that shot,” Jackson said. “Game over. On something which a lot of people would say is routine, we missed.”
The Bengals have been sloppy overall in the past two games. They had nine penalties for 70 yards during a 10-6 loss to the Texans, and 10 penalties for a season-high 108 yards in Arizona. Andy Dalton has been sacked seven times in the past two games, his highest two-game total of the season.
The Bengals haven’t lost back-to-back games since the middle of the 2013 season, although they did have a downturn last season. They started the season 3-0, and then had a loss, a tie and a loss in the next three weeks.
Their most recent three-game losing streak was midway through the 2012 season, when they dropped four straight.
Notes: Lewis said the team hadn’t received the results of tests on cornerback Darqueze Dennard, who suffered a serious shoulder injury on Sunday night. He filled in for Adam “Pacman” Jones, who was inactive with a foot injury. … Lewis gave the players the day off from meetings on Monday after the late-night return from Arizona.
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