You never want to celebrate a "loss"... but in losing 23-17 to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, the Ravens can still celebrate that they've won the AFC North Division title for the second year in a row---and they'll be hosting the Indianapolis Colts this weekend in what shapes up as dramatic classic theatre...
The team that left town will have to come to the Ravens' house. It doesn't get much better for Baltimore fans who are into the history of the sport.
And it sure has a lot of extra layers of drama. The Colts' head coach Chuck Pagano is beloved by the Ravens players and their head coach John Harbaugh, who counts Pagano as one of his best friends, and not just because Pagano served as the Ravens' defensive coordinator not that long ago. Pagano and Harbaugh go back a long ways. And to add even more human interest, Pagano has just come off 3 months of intense chemotherapy for treatment of leukemia.
So it's an emotional set-up for Baltimore, a team and a town that lives for playoff football.
John Harbaugh played his hand well at Cincinnati and nearly pulled off a win against a playoff-bound Bengals team with his 2nd and 3rd-team players.
Carlos Dunlap returned an interception of a Tyrod Taylor pass 14 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter Sunday, sending Cincinnati to a 23-17 victory over the Baltimore Ravens in a regular-season finale that had more of a preseason feel.
"It's definitely different," said Bengals' left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who also sat out the second half. "It's a situation where both teams have gotten in the playoffs and you really want to look forward to next week having people fresh and ready and not have any injuries."
The Ravens (10-6) had already clinched their second straight AFC North title and decided to use the final game to get healthier. They had several stars inactive and pulled quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice after only two series.
They'll host Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts next weekend, reuniting them with former defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano.
"Chuck's like a dad to me," Ravens safety Ed Reed said. "He means a lot to me. I would have much rather seen them in the AFC championship game than the first game."
The Bengals (10-6) are locked into the sixth seed as the final wild-card team. They'll open next weekend at Houston, where they lost 31-10 in the first round of the playoffs last season. "I think it will be good," said Bengals QB Andy Dalton, who grew up in suburban Houston. "We played there last year and know the atmosphere and what it's going to be like. The experience last year will definitely help us."
With hardly anything at stake, the Bengals went into preseason mode on a 26-degree afternoon with a wind chill of 16. They got their seventh win in the last eight games.
"I'm glad that's over," coach Marvin Lewis said. "That's a difficult situation to be in. I thought our guys handled it about as well as you can handle it."
Josh Brown kicked three field goals in the second half. Dunlap tipped one of Tyrod Taylor's passes to himself and returned it for a clinching touchdown with 6:06 left, jumping into the stands and sitting there for several seconds while fans smacked his back.
"I wanted it to be a highlight to remember," Dunlap said.
I thought the Ravens defense played very well in spite of sitting half of their veteran squad. And Bernard Pierce did a great job at RB for the Ravens, despite fighting off a nagging ankle injury that will probably be diagnosed as a sprain. Tyrod Taylor did okay too, and picked his spots to show off his option-style running ability. He just had a few letdowns in his passing decisions which could justifiably be written off to inexperience at the pro level.
The Bengals wanted to get their running game tuned up for the playoffs, but BenJarvus Green-Ellis had a hamstring tighten up during pre-game warm-ups and was held out of the game. Lewis didn't know how it would affect him in the playoffs.
The Ravens sat some of their banged-up playmakers and started pulling others from the game after only two series. Receiver Anquan Boldin, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and linebacker Terrell Suggs were inactive, giving them a week to rest.
The Bengals went with a conservative approach. Dalton didn't even throw toward A.J. Green until the final drive of the first half, keeping the Pro Bowl receiver out of harm's way. Bruce Gradkowski took over in the second half for Dalton, who was 10 of 15 for 78 yards with a pair of sacks.
Brown kicked field goals of 47, 32 and 38 yards in the second half. Brown will be the Bengals' kicker in the playoffs with Mike Nugent sidelined by a calf injury. Brown is 11 for 12 on field goal tries since he signed as a free agent, the only miss on a 56-yard attempt in Pittsburgh.
Taylor, who had thrown only four passes all season, replaced Flacco and led a pair of touchdown drives by running away from defenders. Anthony Allen ran 2 yards for a touchdown, and Taylor scored on a 1-yard run.
Baltimore's Justin Tucker missed a 45-yard field goal try which might have changed the game in the Ravens' favor had he hit it. He later made one from 49 yards, leaving him 30 of 33 for the season. His 90.9 percent success rate set an NFL record for a rookie. ... The Bengals had four sacks, giving them a franchise-record 51 for the season.
Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith (coming back from groin surgery) got a lot of playing time and accounted for himself well. And the Ravens' other young corner Chykie Brown looked very solid in coverage. Rookie center Gino Gradkowski got tons of playing time in relief of Matt Birk and seemed to fit in well as he called coverages and blocked downfield. David Reed had a nice outing at wide receiver. Overall, it was a positive experience to get playing time for the young Ravens.
This was a classic case of saving your ammunition for a bigger battle---for both teams.
Team Stat Comparison
Passing 1st downs
Rushing 1st downs
1st downs from Penalties
3rd down efficiency
4th down efficiency
Yards per play
Comp - Att
Yards per pass
Sacks - Yards Lost
Yards per rush
Red Zone (Made-Att)
Defensive / Special Teams TDs