The Baltimore Ravens' run as Super Bowl champions is officially over.
Joe Flacco threw three fourth-quarter interceptions, and the Cincinnati Bengals overcame four picks from Andy Dalton to keep their hopes of a first-round bye alive with a 34-17 win over Baltimore at Paul Brown Stadium.
The Bengals' playoff seeding will depend on the result of New England vs. Buffalo later in the afternoon. If the Patriots defeat the Bills, Cincinnati stays as the No. 3 seed in the AFC and will host the No. 6 seed next week in the Wild Card Round—either Pittsburgh or San Diego. If the Patriots lose, however, the Bengals will receive a first-round bye and rights to hosting their Divisional Round opponent.
Although the Bengals weren't nearly at their best on Sunday, securing that No. 2 seed would be a huge boon to them taking the next postseason step. Cincinnati finished 8-0 at Paul Brown Stadium this season, going undefeated at home for the first time since 1988, when they reached the Super Bowl.
The Bengals also already defeated the Patriots, their most likely Round 2 opponent, at home in the regular season.
And after Dalton's performance against Baltimore, Marvin Lewis will want any advantage he can get in January. In a game in which he set the single-season franchise records for passing touchdowns and passing yardage, Dalton managed to have arguably the worst home performance of his career.
He threw a career-high four interceptions, each of which managed to keep a scuffling Baltimore team in the game. The Ravens scored two Justin Tucker field goals following consecutive interceptions on Cincinnati's opening two drives of the game, and then Tucker kicked a third field goal off a Dalton pick in the third quarter. Each of the Ravens' first three scoring drives was a direct result of Dalton mistakes.
The problem was that Baltimore's offense wasn't humming well enough to get the job done. The Ravens started inside Cincinnati territory four different times and managed a touchdown just once.
Flacco, who at multiple times seemed far more injured than he was letting on, nearly matched Dalton mistake for mistake. After an almost entirely nondescript first half, Flacco turned the ball over three times in the final 30 minutes to help Cincinnati pull away. He finished with 192 yards and three interceptions on 30-of-50 passing, with his one highlight being an eight-yard touchdown pass to Marlon Brown.
That touchdown tied the game at 17-17 with 5:19 remaining in the third quarter, but the turnovers proved too much. A season after winning the Super Bowl MVP and scoring a mega contract extension, Flacco threw more interceptions than touchdowns for the first time in his career. This is also the first time a Flacco-led Ravens team has missed the playoffs.
Flacco and Harbaugh shared their comments after the game:
The Bengals' saving grace was their ability to make good on the turnovers. In the fourth quarter, they scored 17 points, 10 of which came on drives when they put up zero yards of offense. Mike Nugent kicked a 38-yard field goal to make the score 27-17 with 12:23 remaining in the fourth, and Dre Kirkpatrick's 21-yard pick-six capped off the scoring.
Those moments managed to atone for Dalton, who only had temporary moments of greatness. He found A.J. Green deep down the middle of the field for a 53-yard touchdown with 26 seconds remaining in the first quarter, giving Cincinnati a 7-6 lead that represented the game's only lead change. His second touchdown pass, to Marvin Jones, gave Cincinnati its 17-6 halftime lead.
Other than that, both sides had trouble moving the ball. Baltimore gained only 222 total yards and had no play that went for more than 14.
The Bengals were more successful, with 392 yards, but they will need to fix their turnover woes if they hope to advance in the postseason. The franchise is 0-4 in playoff games since 1990—all of which have come under Marvin Lewis.
Everything worked out in the end on Sunday, but if they turn in a similar performance in the playoffs, Cincinnati's playoff record may go to 0-5.
Andy Dalton (QB, Cincinnati Bengals): C
Watching Dalton play quarterback isn't for the faint of heart. Bengals fans would, at times, be better off just following on the box score rather than working their way through the varying stages of glee, agony and horror that come with watching Dalton weekly.
In Cincinnati's first two possessions, Dalton seemed determined to single-handedly set fire to his team's efforts. His first two picks set up consecutive scoring drives for the Ravens. It looked as if he was bound to repeat performances similar to those in losses against Baltimore and Miami earlier this season.
Then Good Andy showed up to save the day—at least for the moment. He hit Green for the game's first touchdown (on an underthrown ball) and then created headway on three straight drives in the second quarter.
Dalton threw his third pick of the game on Cincinnati's opening drive of the second half and then another in the fourth quarter, but his stretches of solid play were just enough for a win.
Joe Flacco (QB, Baltimore Ravens): D
If Flacco were entering the open market this offseason rather than last, he may have only gotten half of his $120 million contract. The man who morphed into a superstar during last year's playoffs regressed mightily in 2013, turning in the worst statistical season of his career. He more than doubled his interception total from 2012, setting a team record with 22 picks.
At times on Sunday, Flacco looked like a man beaten. He was noticeably gimpy due to his ongoing knee issues, and he took multiple hits from Bengals defenders that left him favoring his shoulder and arm areas.
The breakdown showed in Flacco's performance, as his throws were either inaccurate or short check-downs that went nowhere for the most part. Baltimore was able to rely on its defense to keep it in games for most of the season, and that was again the case here.
But you don't pay $120 million for quarterback who needs propping up by his defense.
Ray Rice (RB, Baltimore Ravens): D+
Speaking of nightmare seasons, Rice is just 26 years old, and at times this season he looked downright elderly. This was the eighth time this year Rice averaged below three yards per carry—a Trent Richardsonian level of putridity. The Cincinnati defense rendered him almost completely ineffective, as he often ran straight into a wall of defenders and went down without much issue.
Some of that is attributable to Baltimore's offensive line. Rice and Bernard Pierce didn't suddenly drink a dual aging serum after the Super Bowl. Pierce's numbers were down markedly from 2012 as well, so it's hard to put a rubber stamp on Rice's career or anything.
That said, it looks like he's running in concrete boots. Rice was never the fleetest of foot, but the step or so he looks to have lost made him an almost entirely irrelevant offensive option. Flacco and Rice were the core of a championship team a year ago.
Now, would you even want to build with them for the long term? I'm not so sure.
A.J. Green (WR, Cincinnati Bengals): B+
Green's counting stats were down from a typical week, but those don't always accurately measure the effectiveness of a wide receiver. We would need All-22 film to get an accurate breakdown, but there were multiple instances where Dalton either missed an open Green or simply went in another direction when Green had separation.
And then there were the other times when Dalton would lock right onto Green on plays where he had zilch for separation.
Either way, it was a nice overall performance for Green. Andrew Hawkins and Marvin Jones both overshadowed him a bit in the second half, but the Ravens' concerted effort to keep Green from beating them allowed those plays to happen.
The Bengals will either host the AFC's No. 6 seed next weekend (either San Diego or Pittsburgh) or have a first-round bye as the No. 2 seed, depending on the result of Week 17's late-afternoon games. The Ravens' season is over.
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