ST. LOUIS (AP) — No doubt, the Cincinnati Bengals have some issues.
While losing four of five against a succession of division leaders, they've sprung leads in the secondary and on the offensive line. Once a promising postseason contender, they've fallen a game back in a packed contest for the last wild card berth in the AFC.
And, they're coming into Sunday's game against the St. Louis Rams (2-11) off a tough setback to the Houston Texans, coughing up a nine-point fourth-quarter leading and falling in the final seconds.
No matter. With three games to go, the Bengals (7-6) are still in the hunt.
"We know how important that game was, and to lose it in the last second like that was a big momentum takeaway for us," running back Cedric Benson said. "But you have to relish the challenge to overcome something like that. In order to go where you want to go, you have to grow in the tough times, too."
Punishing a team suffering through truly lean times could relaunch the Bengals' playoff push. Bedraggled and closing in on a potential top two draft pick for the fourth time in five seasons, the Rams could be coming along at the right time.
The Rams have lost four in a row, three of them decisively, and are crawling to the finish line of a season that's been a devastating letdown. The Rams have the NFL's worst offense, begging for points even before three offensive linemen landed on injured reserve and perhaps down to starting a quarterback who's been with the team a little more than a week, and the league's worst defense against the run, too.
Following a schedule stretch that also included two losses to the Steelers and one to the Ravens, St. Louis could be the Bengals' get-well card.
With three games to go, Andy Dalton has a franchise rookie record 18 touchdown passes. Although the offense has suffered in recent weeks, Dalton has no interceptions the last three games and at least one touchdown pass the last 10 games.
The former TCU standout is having the type of year Sam Bradford enjoyed in 2010 when he was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Before drafting Dalton in the second round, the Bengals analyzed Bradford's breakout.
"I studied how they played him, how he played in the preseason, how he played last regular season, and how they brought him along," coach Marvin Lewis said. "So, I'm very familiar with Sam."
Lewis said Dalton's leadership qualities began to emerge during the lockout.
"Our team had to accept Andy Dalton when they were working out without me telling them about Andy Dalton," Lewis said. "They had to accept him as the person and as the player on their own."
Dalton accepts his role in the Bengals' recent offensive struggles, and his confrontation with the rookie wall.
"Yeah, you definitely feel it, but you've got to put it in your head that there's only three regular season games left and these are really important games for us," Dalton said. "Yeah, you're going to be tired and yeah, it is a long season.
"But the way you focus on it is to see the goal at the end."
Like St. Louis, the Bengals have had offensive woes enhanced by injuries. They finished last week's game without two line starters, settling for a field goal after first-and-goal from the 1, and Benson had eight carries for minus-1 yard in the second half after gaining 92 yards on 13 carries in the first half.
In 11 chances inside the 20 the last three games, they've scored four touchdowns.
Guard Bobbie Williams broke his right ankle in the Houston loss and is on injured reserve, but tackle Andre Smith could be back after missing last week with a left ankle injury. There are three impending free agents at guard, but Lewis said it's no time to be evaluating for the future.
"We don't need to look ahead, we need to win this game," Lewis said. "That's all that matters. Maybe we can talk about that after sometime, hopefully in February, sometime when we're done, and then we can talk about how we did at guard.
"Things will happen as they happen, and all things will fall into place just the way they do."
Problems in the secondary, which lost cornerback Leon Hall for the season last month and has Nate Clements playing hurt, might not be quite so noticeable. The Bengals gave up 300 yards passing and a game-winning TD drive to Houston rookie T.J. Yates last week, but are about to face an offense that's totaled 12 touchdowns all year and needed eight plays from the 1 to score in the second half at Seattle.
Ready or not, Kellen Clemens could be taking the snaps for the Rams. Bradford could miss his fourth game with a persistent high left ankle sprain that's gotten more difficult to deal with over time and backup A.J. Feeley needs at least one more week before his fractured right thumb heals to the point he can grip a ball.
Coach Steve Spagnuolo is 10-35 and likely in need of a resume update. It can't help his cause that the Rams lost on Monday night at Seattle, and it can't help this week that his game is being played on short rest.
The defense has played pretty well lately, limiting the damage as long as possible while all too aware of the offensive shortcomings, before ultimately breaking down. It needs to make some breaks.
"It takes a little bit of pressure off the defense if you play ahead in the game and if you don't have to be nearly perfect to keep your team in it," Spagnuolo said. "That's hard to do."
Yet, Spagnuolo insists, nobody's pointing fingers.
"I'll be honest with you, it's not the makeup of the guys in that room," Spagnuolo said. "Truly, honestly, to a man. Not a coach, not a player."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.