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The Chronicle: This can't be the end for Bengals

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"Attendance remains a concern and the postseason stumbles have become epic," writes NFL Insider Jason La Canfora with CBS Sports. Are we approaching the end-times or is this just another chapter in Cincinnati's illustrious story.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe this will be the final season.

Marvin Lewis, one of the greatest head coaches in franchise history, has qualified for the postseason in six of his 12 seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals. We all know to well, there have been no wins. Come March 2016, there will be nearly 30 players entering free agency, adding to the mounting variables which go into questioning the legitimacy of a hopefully future for the Bengals without a postseason win this year. It's even made veteran cornerback Leon Hall a bit nostalgic. "It could be there’s a lot of guys on our team in their last year and everybody knows not everybody is going to come back and we feel like we do have a championship team so you put those both together you almost feel like this year isn't make or break but is one of the bigger offseason and upcoming seasons we've had for a while."

There are other factors. "Attendance remains a concern and the postseason stumbles have become epic," writes NFL Insider Jason La Canfora with CBS Sports. "Pressure is mounting on this team to make the next step, with Lewis essentially going year-to-year with extensions and Dalton's deal very much pay-as-you-go."

Bengals Owner Mike Brown offered praise and vague prognostication when discussing an extension for Marvin Lewis earlier this year. "He’s been with us for a long time now," Brown said in March. "We have a good relationship. I hope that relationship goes forward into the future. But we aren't at the future yet. We don’t have to make this decision until after this year. He doesn’t have to make this decision until next year. Right now he’s under contract and he’s fulfilling it as we would expect and he knows he should."

Despite their dependable defense turning despicable and Andy Dalton's overall performance flat-lining, most of the blame for Cincinnati's playoff issues is leveled on Marvin Lewis. Captain. Ship. That type of thing. This doesn’t mean Dalton’s lack of postseason success isn’t a defining topic for media discussions regarding the quarterback, but it is Lewis who is standing behind Dalton year after year. It was believed that when Brown made his comments regarding Lewis in March that he wouldn't extend Lewis until a postseason win was secured.

"We know full well we haven’t won a playoff game," Brown said. "People seem to think we are unaware of it. We aren’t. We want to get to the playoffs again and that’s very difficult. We are going to strive to do that. That’s where our focus is going to be. If we get another crack at it everyone in this organization wants to win when we do that."

One month after Brown made those comments, the Bengals extended Lewis through 2016.

"Does he need to win in the playoffs? Absolutely," writes Peter King with Sports Illustrated. "Losing in the playoff opener four years in a row isn’t good, nor should it be something anyone with the franchise accepts. If Mike Brown were a Steinbrenner, Lewis would have been gone after last season. But I refuse to blame this all or even mostly on Lewis."

Then there's Dalton, celebrated as a quarterback with postseason credentials for each season he's played in the NFL. Unfortunately, four months of regular season success hasn't translated to a postseason win during any of those seasons, leaving fans with a bitter taste that commandeers public opinion. It's easy to understand why. When Cincinnati routinely makes first-round exits, this is what we see... and it takes months before the next game to dissolve the disgust.

Dalton postseason

"I would put the blame on him for so solidly standing behind Dalton, without any consequence for his lousy January play," King wrote earlier this year. "The Bengals need to draft a challenger to Dalton, not necessarily to hand him the job but to say, If we're going to be better than we’ve been, we need to be better everywhere, including at quarterback. To be clear: I'm not absolving Lewis of blame for never getting past the first playoff game. But I’m putting more of that blame on the quarterback than on the head coach."

Gang Green Nation, the excellent SB Nation site that covers the New York Jets, ran a story asking readers if they'd trade the Jets’ first-round selection for Dalton in 2016.

Coming into the draft I was an Andy Dalton fan, and through the first four years of his career he has played some pretty good football in Cincinnati. Sure, he's been absolutely dreadful in the post-season and that can't be ignored, performing under pressure is what makes a great quarterback, a great quarterback.

A lot of Jets fans comment that if we get consistent, or even average quarterback play, this team will be a very good football team. Andy Dalton to me, plays above average football for the majority of the season. The Jets haven't enjoyed that luxury for many years and the appeal of having a quarterback of Andy Dalton's caliber would be appealing, even though he's no star at the position.

Applying this suggestive topic, we asked Twitter if Dalton played for another team, would you use a first-round pick to trade for him? Most were an enthusiastic "no".

It's also careless to focus on Dalton and Lewis in this quarterly discussions. A John Stockton-sized assist includes the shocking decline of Cincinnati's defense -- specifically against the running game. Cincinnati's defense is averaging 164 rushing yards allowed per game with six combined touchdowns allowed in their last four postseason games. And during those 16 postseason quarters dating back 2011, the Bengals defense has generated one interception and four quarterback sacks.

Then again, when Andrew Luck makes throws like this, what are we to do?

Do all of these elements morph into the belief that Lewis and Dalton are goners if they don't win a postseason game this season?

Of course not.

For all of the variables that can be chemically engineered, the one constant is Mike Brown. Firing a coach or dumping a quarterback isn't necessarily the emotional response from an owner like Mike Brown. This is both a curse and a blessing. How? It's a curse because the idea of improvement has chipped away at our existential souls for four years now. But, remember, remember the way it used to be... when cutting down limbs from a tree and getting bitten by fleas was better than this demonic reality. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Maybe this is the end of the one and done playoff appearances for the Bengals.

Or maybe it's just the end.