CINCINNATI -- When they start to break down game film of the Baltimore Ravens ahead of Sunday's regular-season finale at Paul Brown Stadium, the Cincinnati Bengals may want to look closest at the Ravens' most recent game.
Although they certainly will use that film to best determine how to stop their division rival from an Xs-and-Os standpoint, there's something else they will want to take serious note of -- the hunger, aggression and passion with which the five-win Ravens displayed in a narrow home win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
With the recently signed Ryan Mallett at quarterback, Baltimore pulled off an upset that might have kept the surging Steelers out of the playoffs. In order to reach the postseason, Pittsburgh now needs to win this week at Cleveland, while the New York Jets also have to lose. It's far from the scenario the Steelers had in mind three weeks ago when they knocked off the Bengals in a game in Cincinnati that had a real playoff feel.
All of this is to say, the Bengals must let last Sunday serve as a lesson: They have to take the Ravens seriously. Sure, they beat Baltimore once already this year and are much healthier than the Ravens -- even if Andy Dalton isn't playing and there's uncertainty about how much Tyler Eifert and AJ McCarron can provide -- but none of that may matter.
Just look at comments the Ravens made just after their sweep of the Steelers. Via ESPN's Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley, here's how Ravens coach John Harbaugh got his already high-strung players even more energized after the win.
"That's a team that came in here expecting to win," Harbaugh told his players. "But you know what? They should have known better."
Added Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb: "If we can't get in there [the playoffs], then you can't get in, either. That's how we want it."
Let this be a lesson.
Baltimore has nothing to play for at this point of the season other than the possibility of ruing various playoff hopes its biggest rivals have. In the Bengals' case, postseason seeding remains on the line. Yes, Cincinnati has already clinched a playoff spot and can't fall any further than being the AFC's No. 3 seed, but with a win and a Broncos loss this week (or a Broncos loss combined with a Chiefs win) it can earn the first-round bye it fought so hard to claim Monday night at Denver. Had the Bengals beaten the Broncos in overtime earlier this week, they already would have locked down the 2-seed.
Even if a bye is possible with a loss, the Bengals still want to go into the postseason with a win.
"It is what it is now. We're going to make our next move our best move," defensive end Carlos Dunlap said after Monday's loss. "If we can get that bye, it'll help and be great. And if not, we're just going to play those extra games and keep our eyes on the prize. We've still got an opportunity to do everything we want to do."