BALTIMORE – Instead of vigorously bolting into the playoffs with a fresh batch of momentum, the Baltimore Ravens enter the postseason limping and scratching their heads about their lackluster offense.
It was a day where little went right for the Ravens with the exceptions of halting their losing streak to the Cincinnati Bengals at three games despite failing to capitalize on five turnovers.
The Ravens (12-4) won their fourth game in a row Sunday as they outlasted the Bengals for a sloppy 13-7 victory as free safety Ed Reed intercepted Carson Palmer twice in a relatively meaningless regular-season finale.
Having already clinched a playoff berth last week, the Ravens learned that they’ll face off with the Kansas City Chiefs next Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium in an AFC wild-card playoff as the fifth seed in the conference.
"We can’t allow ourselves to go into next week and play the way that we played," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "We’ve got to go in there clicking on all cylinders. We’ve got to make some things work regardless of what’s called. We can no longer point the finger.
"We’ve got to make it work as an offensive unit. There’s no more excuses because excuses are going to get you beat. The teams that make excuses are going to have to sit at home next week, so can’t make any more excuses."
Hours after leaving M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens received their most encouraging news of the day when the Indianapolis Colts edged out the Tennessee Titans on a last-second field goal. That prevents the Ravens from having to square off with an old nemesis, Peyton Manning, in a potential rematch of last year’s AFC divisional playoff loss.
However, the Ravens got no assistance from the Pittsburgh Steelers as they blew out the Cleveland Browns to win the AFC North crown.
So, the Ravens’ game held no playoff implications.
And the Ravens mustered little offense, generating only 10 first downs, a season-low 199 yards of total offense and converting just 2 of 11 third downs. Quarterback Joe Flacco was intercepted once, only passed for 125 yards and was sacked four times.
The offense averaged just 4.0 yards per play and controlled the clock for just 25 minutes and 18 seconds.
Unlike the New England Patriots, Steelers and New York Jets who excelled Sunday, the Ravens and Chiefs hit the postseason on a down note. The Chiefs (10-6) lost 31-10 to the Oakland Raiders.
"We’re definitely going to have to perform better," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We’ve got to be prepared to play 60 minutes, especially in the playoffs. Because if you look around the league, everybody that’s in the playoffs took care of business today."
Defensively, the Ravens forced five turnovers on Reed’s interceptions and three fumble recoveries.
"I think our defense played out of their minds," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Offensively, I’m disappointed with some of the things we did offensively. I’m a little bit frustrated with some of those things, but we have to find a way to win the next game.
"We are who we are and we have to move forward with that. I’m very confident that our offense, our coaches, our players and our team, we’ll find a way to win from here on out. That’s what our focus has to be."
With a goal-line stand in the final minutes of the fourth quarter, the Ravens finally put the game away and stopped the Bengals’ late comeback attempt.
Minutes earlier, the Bengals had closed the gap to six points on an 11-yard touchdown pass to Jerome Simpson in the corner of the end zone behind cornerback Lardarius Webb. Palmer completed all five of his passes on that drive.
Palmer completed 32 of 45 passes for 305 yards and one touchdown. He was never sacked and was only hit twice.
"Going into the game, we had some momentum and we were fired up," Suggs said. "Then, they made some plays an naturally that can crush momentum. We’re going to get our corrections made and get ready for these playoffs.
"If we were 4-12, you all would be writing exactly how terrible the Ravens are, but we got the 12 wins. By any means necessary, we got it done."
Palmer marched the Bengals down to the Ravens’ two-yard line with completions of 39 and 19 yards.
With no timeouts, Palmer spiked the ball to stop the clock. Then, he threw incomplete twice to end the drive.
His fourth-and-1 pass to running back Cedric Peerman with 16 seconds sailed high over his head out of bounds.
The Ravens could finally breathe a sigh of relief as they won the game and avenged a 15-10 loss to the Bengals earlier this season.
"Cincinnati, they do a good job of matching up against us," Suggs said. "When they play us, their defense looks like the ’85 Bears, Carson Palmer looks like Joe Montana in his prime. They match up really well against us."
It was a rough game for the Ravens as cornerback Josh Wilson suffered a shoulder stinger, Reed hurt his ribs and offensive tackle Michael Oher sprained his knee.
Did the Ravens think about resting their starters even with the game not settled since the Steelers had already routed the Browns?
"Why? We didn’t have the game won," Mason said. "Why pull the starters when we’re not consistently going down the field? We wanted to go out with a win and go into the playoffs with momentum."
Instead of building momentum, the offense took a step backward.
The Ravens traditionally struggle against the Bengals’ Cover 2 schemes and their top-notch cornerback tandem of Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall.
"Hands down, their defense is good," said running back Ray Rice, who rushed for 77 yards and the Ravens’ lone touchdown. "They got our number. The Bengals have our number when they play defense."
Because the Chiefs were upset by the Oakland Raiders and the Colts held off the Tennessee Titans, the Ravens are playing Kansas City. The Chiefs are led by quarterback Matt Cassel, wide receiver Dwayne Bowe, running back Jamaal Charles and outside linebacker Tamba Hali.
"They’re a very good team, well coached," Mason said. "They’re a team that last year were struggling. This year, they’ve done a 180 and are playing very good. That says a lot about their coaching staff and players’ dedication. They’ve put themselves in position to make a Super Bowl run like everybody else."
The Ravens set up their first score on a trick play, a 37-yard screen pass to tight end Todd Heap off a flea-flicker.
However, they only managed to score on a 25-yard field goal from Billy Cundiff.
The Bengals turned the ball over twice, were stopped on a third-and-short and flubbed a 29-yard field goal over their next four drives after the Ravens’ initial score.
Flacco was intercepted on a late throw to Heap in the first half, but Reed made a shoestring catch of a deflected Palmer pass in the end zone.
Later, Simpson fumbled while cornerback Chris Carr had him wrapped up.
Rice converted that score with a seven-yard touchdown run to stake the Ravens to a 13-0 lead in the third quarter.
"It wasn’t a great day, but we got a win," said Flacco, who threw five interceptions against the Bengals this season. "You have to be happy about that. We’re going to the playoffs for bigger and better things. That’s the important thing right now."
And the Ravens won’t be satisfied with merely making it to the playoffs for the third year in a row.
"Nobody asks who took second place," Suggs said. "We don’t get satisfied on moral victories. It’s been years around here we’ve been No. 1 in defense, but we have no hardware to show for it. Nobody even knows that because we didn’t win the Super Bowl that year. So, definitely anything less than Dallas is a failure."
Two years removed from losing to the Steelers in the AFC championship game, the Ravens want to go all the way to Dallas for the Super Bowl.
"Why should we be proud if we make the playoffs?" Mason said. "If you don’t win the Super Bowl, nobody remembers you. The only team that people remember are the guys holding up that Lombardi trophy."