Though there was no way for the Cincinnati Bengals to improve their postseason seeding with a defeat of the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, that doesn't mean there weren't reasons for the Bengals to play this game as though it mattered. Considering how the Bengals were manhandled by the Ravens to start the season, a measure of revenge would have been welcomed. It's never fun, of course, to be swept by a divisional rival.
The Ravens out-gained the Bengals 352 yards to 189 and held the ball for an astounding 35:39 to Cincinnati's 24:41, but the Bengals still pulled out the 23-17 victory simply because they made more of the opportunities they created for themselves.
The most important of those was Carlos Dunlap's 14-yard interception of Ravens backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor, which Dunlap returned for a touchdown, giving the Bengals a 24-14 lead in the fourth quarter from which the Ravens did not recover.
It was an auspicious way to get a win, considering the Bengals had just 21 yards of offense in the first quarter, their starting quarterback, Andy Dalton, had just 78 yards on his 10 completed passes before being pulled in favor of backup Bruce Gradkowski and, with BenJarvus Green-Ellis suffering a hamstring injury in pregame warm-ups, the team had just 47 total rushing yards on 21 carries.
However, a win is a win, even if it was a game that the Bengals didn't need in order to reach the postseason. The only cause for worry is their slumping offense of the past few weeks and whether that trend is poised to continue in the playoffs.
With the Houston Texans up next, chances are their defense will be the most important component to their game plan; however, Dalton's ability to get the ball to his receivers and the health of Green-Ellis are both necessary for the Bengals' playoff run to be deep.
But if Cincinnati's defense needs to carry the day, they are more than capable of doing so. They notched four sacks of Baltimore's quarterbacks—one on Flacco, three on Taylor—with two of those belonging to defensive end Michael Johnson. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict had the opportunity to shine, with the Ravens running the ball 46 times; he ended the day with 18 tackles, while fellow linebacker Rey Maualuga had 10.
And though the Ravens rushed for a total of 206 yards, it didn't translate to points, which is what matters most of all.
With offensive and defensive starters not playing a full four quarters and effort being less than what it would have been had there been more on the line, it's hard to take the temperature of the Bengals as they head into the postseason.
If this was a playoff warm-up, they'll need to get a little hotter come next weekend, but chances are if this is how next week's meeting with the Texans plays out, there's no doubt the Bengals will take it.