By Joe Kay
AP Sports Writer
CINCINNATI — The Cincinnati Bengals returned the nucleus of their playoff team to make another run at getting that elusive first-round win.
As the season reaches its midpoint, just reaching the playoffs will be the big challenge.
A 35-17 loss in New England on Sunday marked the second week in a row that they’ve been drubbed on the road by a playoff-caliber team.
They were coming off a 28-14 loss in Dallas that left them determined to finally get it right.
Instead, the same problems persisted on both offense and defense during a second-half meltdown in New England.
The Bengals (2-4) are off to their worst start since 2010. The defending AFC North champions trail Pittsburgh by two games and Baltimore by one heading into a matchup against intrastate rival Cleveland (0-6), Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
It’s the sixth time during coach Marvin Lewis’ 14 seasons that the Bengals have started 2-4 or worse. The five previous times, they failed to finish with a winning record. Their franchise-record streak of five straight playoff appearances is in jeopardy.
“We have an expectation here and we haven’t been playing up to it,” Andy Dalton said on Monday.
There’s still ample chance to win the division. Cincinnati has two games left with Cleveland, two with Baltimore and one with Pittsburgh.
So far, the Bengals have played like an also-ran. The offensive line is in upheaval, and the defense has gotten shredded.
There’s a lot to fix with the season’s midpoint approaching. Last season, the Bengals opened 8-0, matched the franchise record with 12 wins, then lost in the opening round of the playoffs for an NFL-record fifth season in a row.
“It’s different,” Lewis said. “This isn’t last year’s team. The margin for error we have right now is pretty thin.”
The most glaring problems have been on the offensive line. Right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi got benched during the third quarter in New England, though he was back for the final series. Ogbuehi, a first-round pick last season, has struggled in his past two games. Lewis said Ogbuehi would start against the Browns.
Center Russell Bodine left in the third quarter because of a sprained ankle. His status for the Browns game is uncertain.
Dalton got sacked for a safety in the second half and was under consistent pressure. He’s been sacked 19 times, tied for second-most in the league.
The defense has major issues, too. It gave up three more touchdown passes on Sunday and now has allowed 14 overall, trailing Detroit (17) and Cleveland (16) for most in the NFL.
Last season, the Bengals allowed only 18 touchdown passes in 16 regular-season games.
The Patriots shredded Cincinnati’s defense with its two tight ends in the second half. Rob Gronkowski had five catches for 121 yards and a touchdown, and Martellus Bennett caught five passes for 48 yards after being held without a reception in the first half.
In the second half, Tom Brady went 17 of 19 for 240 yards with a pair of touchdowns as the Patriots piled up 262 yards overall and pulled away.
“They got to us in the second half, and that was a tough one,” defensive tackle Domata Peko said.
Notes: Lewis said he’s not worried about repercussions from Vontaze Burfict’s low hit on Bennett. Burfict hit the side of Bennett’s knee after Brady threw a pass to another receiver. “The league looks at every play,” Lewis said. “No, there’s no concern.”… The Browns and Bengals haven’t been this bad together through six games since the 2008 season, when Cincinnati started 0-6 and Cleveland was 2-4.