CINCINNATI (AP) - In the Bengals' biggest game, running back Cedric Benson was a bystander.
The Bengals gave their top runner only seven carries during a 31-10 playoff loss in Houston, one that highlighted a huge problem they must fix if they want to get back to the postseason.
At the most important times, Cincinnati (9-8) couldn't run the ball.
The Bengals got away from the run and let quarterback Andy Dalton throw the ball more down the stretch, showing confidence in their emerging rookie. Cincinnati lost four of its last six games and was held under 20 points four times.
Too often, the Bengals found themselves running in place.
"We kind of went away from it," Benson said. "There wasn't a big emphasis on it throughout the week in preparation going into games, and we just kind of went away from it. It just kind of became unimportant."
It was apparent in the last two games.
The Bengals went into their final regular-season game with a chance to clinch the AFC wild card by beating Baltimore at Paul Brown Stadium. Dalton had one of his most erratic games against the Ravens earlier in the season, throwing for 373 yards _ a club record for a rookie _ but also three interceptions.
Benson got the ball only five times in the first half of the rematch and managed 10 yards as Cincinnati fell behind 17-3. The Bengals wound up throwing the ball 44 times and running it 24 times in a 24-16 loss.
During the playoff loss in Houston a week later, it was more of the same. Benson ran five times in the first half for only 9 yards as Cincinnati fell behind 17-10. He got it only two more times in the second half, when the Bengals ran six times in all and threw 24 times.
Benson got the impression during practice leading up to late-season games that the run was being de-emphasized.
"I think it was more of a gameplan deal," Benson said. "I don't think it was the way the game was going or anything. It was just how they wanted to approach chasing after winning."
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth also noted a change in the offense as the season went along and Dalton and rookie receiver A.J. Green emerged as big-play threats. Defenses focused on stopping the run and double-covering Green, leaving the Bengals to come up with other ways of moving the ball. They never did consistently.
"I don't think we had a tremendous amount of carries in those games," Whitworth said. "It's not like we ran the ball and were trying, trying and trying. Most of the time we were trying to throw it."
Coach Marvin Lewis noted that the offense's approach changed as Dalton and Green became more comfortable. Heading into the season, the idea was to take the pressure off Dalton by running a lot. Benson carried 25 times for 121 yards _ both season highs _ in the opener at Cleveland. He carried 16 times or fewer in each of the last three games.
"The approach taken was that the offense would grow through Andy, and I think that was the best approach," Lewis said. "I think we saw it happen that way. The things we opened the season doing in Cleveland, and where we finished, were much different. I think that was a show of his abilities and the growth of him, and the players around him."
Lewis also decided to get running back Bernard Scott more carries as the season went along, reducing Benson's time on the field. The third-year backup carried 112 times for 380 yards during the regular season, both career highs. Benson wasn't thrilled with the sharing arrangement.
The Bengals have to decide on a starting running back for next season. Benson returned for 2011 on a one-year deal, expecting to be a key part of the weekly gameplan. Instead, his role was diminished as the season went along, which surprised and disappointed him.
"Being a running back and knowing the capabilities we have in the run game to be successful on teams regardless of what they want to throw at us, it's always been a force for us in the four years I've been here," Benson said. "So it is a little disappointing."
The Bengals have plenty of options in the draft, with an extra first-round pick from trading Carson Palmer to Oakland. They'd like a running back who can catch the ball in the West Coast scheme they adopted this season.
Benson doesn't have an idea of where the team is heading at his position.
"I'm open for anything," he said. "I don't know what the future's going to hold. You never know going into being a free agent, things like that. I don't have any closed doors."