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Dave Einsel, Associated Press
Cincinnati Bengals strong safety Chris Crocker (42) greets Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson (80) after their NFL wild card playoff football game Saturday, Jan. 7, 2012, in Houston. The Texans won 31-10.

CINCINNATI — The Bengals packed and left town on Monday thinking they'd taken a big first step toward becoming a perennial playoff team.

They've been in this spot before, and it hasn't turned out that way.

The Bengals (9-8) had only their third winning record and playoff appearance in the last 21 years, getting the final wild card. They lost in Houston 31-10 on Saturday, another game that showed they're not ready to keep up with the NFL's elite. The Bengals played eight games against other teams that reached the playoffs this season and lost all eight.

The challenge now is to make the playoffs for a second year in a row, something the Bengals have done only once in their history, in 1981-82. That's also their last back-to-back winning records.