CINCINNATI — Many of the Bengals packed and left town on Monday thinking they'd taken a big first step toward becoming a perennial playoff team.
Cincinnati has been in this spot before, and it hasn't turned out that way.
The Bengals (9-8) had a breakthrough this season, earning only their third winning record and playoff appearance in the last 21 years. They lost in Houston 31-10 on Saturday, another reminder they've got a long way to go before they can join the NFL's elite.
At least they seem to be headed the right way.
"We're closing a chapter," coach Marvin Lewis said on Monday. "The book's still being written. We've got things to do, but with a group of guys that I think just scratched the surface a little bit this year and they realize that. They're not beating their chests."
Despite having one of the NFL's least-experienced rosters and rookies at quarterback and receiver, the Bengals won the final AFC wild card by taking advantage of a favorable schedule and competitors' meltdowns.
Their total of nine wins included only one against a team that finished the season with a winning record. They played eight games against teams that also reached the playoffs, and lost all eight.
The next challenge is to make the playoffs for a second straight season, something they've done only once during their 44-year history — in 1981-82 under coach Forrest Gregg. That's also the last time they've had back-to-back winning records, a sign of just how bad they've been.
There are hopeful signs at important positions.
Receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton, their top two draft picks, had Pro Bowl-caliber seasons as rookies, and the defense is built around a core of young players beginning to emerge. There are a lot of problems to fix, but some emerging stars to build around.
They just have to get it right.
"The future is bright around here," safety Chris Crocker said. "It's tough to look forward when you lose in the playoffs because it's like you fall off a cliff, everything just comes to a halt. It's very tough to lose a game and be optimistic, but all you can do now is move forward."
Of course, they've been in this position many times. They ended a 15-year playoff drought by winning the AFC North in 2005 behind young quarterback Carson Palmer, receivers Chad Ochocinco and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and a defense that seemed to be on the rise.
Instead, they fell to 8-8, 7-9 and 4-11-1 before making it back to the playoffs in 2009. They followed that by going 4-12 in 2010.
Their success never lasts for more than one year because a lot of things have to go right for them to win. This season, they got a favorable schedule and plenty of help down the stretch, with Oakland and the New York Jets imploding and falling out of the wild-card race.
Their inexperience translated to inconsistency. They scored three points or fewer in a half during each of their last six games, coming apart for long stretches.
"We have to be more effective and go out there and put a whole game together," Dalton said. "This is something we didn't do this year. We never put a full game together. We had good quarters, good halves, but we never had that one full game and that's something we're going to have to get better at."
They'd prefer to see the inconsistency as growing pains rather than a problem that will pull them down again next season and continue that pattern of failing to put two good years together.
"The difference is that we're much younger," Crocker said. "A lot of these guys in this locker room will play in a lot more ballgames just like we played last Saturday. I think that gives us hope that we've kind of turned the corner."
Notes: Lewis said all of his starters are expected to be ready for training camp, including CB Leon Hall, who tore an Achilles tendon during the season. ... Lewis said there have been no discussions of a contract extension with ownership. Lewis has at least one more year on his deal. ... The local chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America honored Dalton as the team's MVP and Crocker with its annual Good Guy Award on Monday.