HOUSTON (AP) — A.J. Green had several steps on the two Texans frantically — and vainly — trying to catch up. He was all alone, 5 yards deep in the end zone. The ball was in the air. Amazingly, the Cincinnati Bengals had a chance to end their playoff futility streak.
The Pro Bowl receiver dived and stretched, reaching his fingertips as far as they'd go. It wasn't far enough.
The ball hit the ground. The streak went on.
Andy Dalton overthrew Green in the closing minutes Saturday, and the Houston Texans held on for a 19-13 victory in a wild-card rematch that had a sickeningly familiar ending for the Bengals.
When the playoffs begin, bad things happen for them.
They've now gone 22 seasons without a playoff win, the longest current streak of futility in the league. It equals the seventh-longest in NFL history, according to STATS LLC.
"It hurts when you lose, particularly when you lose in the playoffs," coach Marvin Lewis said.
Nobody knows that exquisite pain more than the Bengals.
"It's hard to put it into words," said cornerback Leon Hall, who returned an interception for Cincinnati's only touchdown. "It's disappointing. I mean, we had a good year, but it didn't end how we wanted it to and how we planned it to. At the end of the day, they made the plays that won the game for them."
What hurt most about this one? How close they came to finally pulling one off.
Despite being outplayed all game, they had one final shot at the end. They got the ball back at their 20-yard line with 6:15 left, and Dalton had his chance for a memorable comeback in his hometown.
He's used to playing at Reliant Stadium — he grew up in suburban Katy and had high school games there — and now had a chance for an 80-yard drive that would get the Bengals the first playoff road win in their history.
"I was telling everybody we're going to drive down, going to win this game," Dalton said. "Everybody felt that."
They had their chance. Green got behind the coverage on a double move and Dalton saw him running free. He overthrew him on third-and-11 from the Houston 36-yard line with 2:57 to go, sailing his pass too deep into the end zone.
"I just threw it a little too far," Dalton said. "That's a play that if we make it, obviously the game's a lot different."
Green couldn't even get his fingertips on the ball.
"I was digging for it," Green said. "I laid out, couldn't get a hand on it. It happens like that. That's one thing we need to get better with, we need to capitalize on plays. That's the next step to being a great team."
Dalton threw a quick pass to Marvin Jones on fourth down, but he was tackled 3 yards shy of the first down. The Texans then ran out the clock.
"Inches away," offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "We had A.J. on that one play. Inches away."
And the postseason misery goes on.
Since their last playoff win, the Bengals have been through five coaches, had 21 different quarterbacks throw a pass, and lost all four of their first-round chances.
Their last playoff win came against a team that no longer exists, at a stadium that no longer stands. They beat the Houston Oilers 41-14 at Riverfront Stadium in a first-round game in January 1991.
This represented their best chance to break through. They'd won seven of eight to close the season, matching the best finish in franchise history. They were playing in the same place where the lost 31-10 in the opening round last year, giving them some familiarity.
In the end, it didn't matter for much.
Houston's Matt Schaub gave the Bengals a chance to stay in a lopsided game by making one bad mistake. His sideline pass was intercepted by Hall and returned for a 21-yard touchdown, the cornerback's second score in three games.
"It was never easy," Schaub said. "Cincinnati is a great team. I made a turnover and gave them points. We just had to rally around each other and we did that."
Given how much the Texans dominated, the Bengals were fortunate to be so close.
Dalton had a horrid time. He was 4 of 10 for 3 yards in the first half. With J.J. Watt's sack added in, the Bengals had minus-6 yards passing and only 53 yards overall.
"I think it was a full defensive effort," Watt said. "Everybody was flying around, everybody was having fun. We got off the field on third down. That was a big key for us."
Dalton was a rookie last season when he threw three interceptions in the playoff loss. He had a bad homecoming again, going 14 of 30 for 127 yards with two sacks and an interception. The back-to-back playoff showings will raise questions about the second-round draft pick, who faded down the stretch.
Dalton threw for four touchdowns and six interceptions in the last six games, which the Bengals won with defense. The defense scored three touchdowns in the last three games, while the offense managed only one.
"The offense didn't play as well as it could have," Dalton said. "You can always look back and say, 'What if?'"
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