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For only the fourth time this season, the Rams' offense actually outgained an opponent.

For only the fourth time all season, the Rams' defense held the opposition under 300 yards.

And for just the second time since October, the Rams got the better of the takeaway-giveaway differential.

But at the end of the day, it all added up to another big fat "L."

A frustrating, flag-filled 7-minute stretch late in the third quarter and early in the fourth was the difference in a 20-13 loss to Cincinnati on Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome.

The Rams, losing their fifth game in a row, fell to 2-12 this season; the Bengals, still clawing for a wild-card playoff berth in the AFC, improved to 8-6.

"I was standing there in the third quarter, so proud of this football team," Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo said. "I probably shouldn't have (thought) that. I might have jinxed myself because there was the swing there where it was a little bit disappointing. ... There's a never-say-die, and a fight in this football team. God bless 'em for that."

Maybe so, but the Rams "died" for the 36th time in 46th games under Spagnuolo, and it all started on a 56-yard punt return by Cincinnati's Brandon Tate late in the third quarter with the score 6-6.

It merely was the latest bust for the Rams' punt coverage team, which has sprung major leaks over the last month and half.

"Somehow, someway, somebody's got to stop the ball first," Spagnuolo said.

In other words, prevent Tate from accelerating, or make him run laterally instead of forward.

"That's what you do," Spagnuolo said. "I saw it from where I was standing, there was a little crease there. You give that guy a crease, that's what happens. You've just got to find a way to get him on the ground. ... Somebody's got to find a way to get him on the ground."

Compounding the problem was that James Butler rode Tate out of bounds for several yards, drawing an unnecessary roughness penalty.

The combination of the return and the Butler penalty gave the Bengals a first down at the Rams' 12; four plays later Bernard Scott scored on a 1-yard run with 12 seconds left in the third quarter, giving the Bengals a 13-6 lead.

The flag football was only beginning.

Right tackle Harvey Dahl had been penalized for a modest 36 yards through the previous 13 games of 2011, but he got hit for a quick 20 yards — with two penalties on the same play — early in the fourth quarter, on the Rams' first offensive series after the Scott touchdown.

On a 12-yard gain by Cadillac Williams to the St. Louis 43, Dahl was called for holding. As referee Jerome Boger turned on his microphone to announce the infraction, an angry Dahl was heard yelling, "That's not (bleeping) holding!"

It isn't as if Dahl was the first player in the NFL to complain about a call during a game, but Boger threw another flag on Dahl for unsportsmanlike conduct. Just like that, first-and-10 at the 43 became first-and-30 at the Rams' 11.

"Obviously, I didn't know the microphone was on," Dahl said. "It's my fault. You can't make a bad situation worse. I've got to stay composed and not hurt my team."

Spagnuolo cautioned his players at the team meeting Saturday night that Boger's crew had called more penalties than any other NFL officiating crew this season. Sunday was no different, with the Bengals flagged 11 times for 101 yards and the Rams penalized 10 times for 109.

But over that key 7-minutes stretch six of the seven calls went against the Rams, and it helped tip the game in Cincinnati's favor.

"I don't want to blame the refs, but come on, man," Rams safety Quintin Mikell said. "Especially on that one drive. If you would replay some of that stuff, it was going both ways, but we were the ones getting picked on."

Mikell was referring to the sequence after the Dahl penalties and subsequent Rams punt.

First, linebacker Chris Chamberlain was called for unnecessary roughness for a hit on Cedric Benson on an incomplete pass over the middle.

Two plays later Chamberlain was flagged for unnecessary roughness again, giving the Bengals a first-and-goal situation on the St. Louis 4.

Chamberlain got gouged in an eye by a Bengal, and may have been caught trying to retaliate when he was flagged the second time.

"I was frustrated, and I'm being careful not to pass judgement," Spagnuolo said. "However, I did ask the referee to please try and call it both ways. If it's going to be called and we're going to protect, let's protect everybody."

In any event, Benson scored a 4-yard TD around left end following the second penalty against Chamberlain, giving the Bengals a 20-6 lead with 9:14 left in the fourth quarter.

Given the way the Rams have played on offense this season, 14 points was an insurmountable deficit.

True, the Rams scored on a 25-yard pass from quarterback Kellen Clemens — subbing for the injured Sam Bradford — to Danario Alexander with 1:08 to play. But for the 13th time in 14 games, they scored no more than one offensive TD. And for the 12th time in 14 games, they scored 16 points or less.

Given the fact that Clemens has had only five practices as a Ram, he played better than expected. But the Rams went zero for eight on third-down conversions through three quarters.

Running back Steven Jackson, with 71 yards rushing on 18 carries, finished the day 34 yards shy of his seventh-consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season.

And Josh Brown missed a 45-yard field goal late in the first quarter following a less-than-perfect long snap by Jake McQuaide.

"Another tough loss," Jackson said. "We get in scoring position, and we're unable to come out with touchdowns in a tight game. Once again, I think our defense played really stellar, especially in the first half."

That all sounds familiar, doesn't it?