CINCINNATI - The Bengals were convinced that this time would be different, that they finally would break the postseason losing streak that had caused so much embarrassment and pain over the years.
The decades, actually.
For one thing, they were playing at home after losing playoff games in Houston the previous two seasons. For another, they sensed a greater resolve, a greater confidence entering the game.
"We're not going to get any of you to shut up about it until we win," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis told reporters a few days before Sunday's AFC wild-card game. "That's the way it is. That's exactly the way it is."
So much for feeling better about things this time. The Bengals wound up right where they've been since January 1991 -- without a playoff win. They lost to the underdog Chargers, 27-10, continuing the NFL's longest current streak of playoff futility.
That's right: No team has gone longer without a postseason victory than the Bengals.
The Chargers will face the Broncos on Sunday in Denver in the divisional round. San Diego won there Dec. 12, setting the stage for an intriguing rematch.
As for the Bengals, you need look no further than quarterback Andy Dalton for where it all went wrong. Just days after Dalton pronounced himself ready to break through after dispiriting playoff losses to the Texans the previous two seasons, he was abysmal against the Chargers.
Dalton was 29-for-51 for 334 yards and had one touchdown pass, two interceptions and a lost fumble. All three turnovers came in the second half, when the Bengals needed him most.
And so it goes for a franchise that has become synonymous with January failure. The Bengals haven't won a playoff game in six tries since Jan. 6, 1991, against Houston.
No, not the Texans -- the Oilers. The Bengals' quarterback in that game: Boomer Esiason, who passed for two touchdowns and ran for another in a 41-14 win.
"It's very frustrating," Dalton said. "We had another opportunity. All the good things we did this year, and to come out and not win, this game hurts."
Put this one on Dalton, as he was quick to tell you. "It all comes with playing the position," he said. "There's a lot that goes on during a game, and the quarterback is in control of everything. He's the leader of the team and of the offense, and when things don't go right, the quarterback is going to get the blame. I'm willing to take every shot at me."
The AFC North champions entered the game 8-0 at home, but in the crucible of playoff football, they were not up to the challenge. Dalton failed to consistently lead the offense and the defense was pushed around.
San Diego's game plan was to attack with the running game, and the Chargers were punishingly effective, grinding out 196 yards on 40 attempts. They ran for two touchdowns, including Ronnie Brown's 58-yarder in the fourth quarter.
Philip Rivers attempted only 16 passes but hit on 12, including a 4-yard touchdown to Ladarius Green in the third quarter.
"We knew it was going to be a slugfest from the very first snap all the way through the game," said Chargers first-year coach Mike McCoy, whose team lost to the Bengals, 17-10, Dec. 1 in San Diego. "We challenged everybody up front -- actually, the whole football team -- that going on the road is not going to be easy regardless of who you're playing. We said we're going to do whatever we think it takes to win."
After trailing 10-7 at halftime, the Chargers took the lead for good when Rivers hit Green with 6:46 left in the third quarter. On his next series, Dalton fumbled while trying to run for a first down, and the Chargers converted the turnover into a field goal by Nick Novak.
Dalton was intercepted on his next possession, and the Chargers added another field goal to make it 20-10. Dalton served up a third straight turnover, another pick, on the next series early in the fourth quarter. Brown's touchdown iced it with 2:17 left.
"Unfortunately, the last three years, we haven't been able to win one of these playoff games," Dalton said. "Obviously, there's going to be a lot of criticism and talk, but until you win and prove people wrong, people can say whatever they want."