CINCINNATI -- The Baltimore Ravens didn't deserve to go to the playoffs, and they weren't good enough to get there.
The Ravens controlled their playoff fate for the past two weeks, and they didn't have what it takes to march into the postseason like they've done in each of the past five seasons. They let opportunities slip through their fingers like another failed trip in the red zone.
Everything was going according to plan for the Ravens on Sunday when they tied the Bengals in the third quarter, seized the momentum and looked at the scoreboard to see the Miami Dolphins losing to the New York Jets. Instead of closing out the game for a playoff berth, however, the Ravens watched the Bengals score the last 17 points.
Game over. Season over. Defense of the Super Bowl title over.
The Ravens finished 8-8, and rightfully so. They were mediocre. They made the same mistakes week after week. And, minutes after being eliminated from the playoffs, they didn't make any excuses.
"It's tough. It's disappointing," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "But we're an 8-8 football team -- we don't deserve to be there [in the playoffs]. Everybody in that locker room is used to winning and getting in the playoffs and giving ourselves a shot to win it all. It's disappointing not to have done that for ourselves. But we didn't play well, and at 8-8, we don't deserve to be there."
The regular-season finale was a series of replays of what went wrong this season, especially when the Ravens were making a push for the playoffs. All of the exasperating issues -- a struggling red zone offense, shaky pass protection and the defense's inability to finish games -- were on display at Paul Brown Stadium in freeze-frame clarity.
The frustrating part for the Ravens was they weren't outplayed. The Bengals were gift-wrapping this game to the Ravens like a late holiday present, throwing four interceptions.
What did the Ravens do with two of those turnovers in the first quarter? They kicked two field goals.
"If we could have gotten 14 or even 10 there, it would have been a big difference," coach John Harbaugh said. "I thought [the red zone] was the issue the week before, too, and the week before that. That's been an issue down the stretch for us -- scoring touchdowns in the red zone -- and it got us again in this game."
The Ravens, with the third-worst red-zone offense entering this game, were 1-of-4 in Cincinnati. In their final three games, the Ravens scored a total of two touchdowns.
"When you're that much off throughout the course of 16 games, you're not going to be special enough to win football games," Flacco said. "That's just kind of where we are."
That's not a playoff offense. That's not a winning offense. But it is a reflection of a banged-up one.
Outside of a celebratory sprint down the sideline after a two-point conversion, running back Ray Rice had no burst and played only two series in the first half because of a thigh injury. Flacco gutted it out on one leg again after taking a hit in the end zone; he couldn't step into his throws after that.
"At the end of the day, the one thing I can say that we can all do better is that we could have executed," Rice said. "That takes play calling out of it. Sometimes, it's about who wants it more."
Much of the blame will go on Flacco and his three interceptions in the fourth quarter. That gave him the Ravens' single-season record of 22 interceptions, which were three more than any other Ravens quarterback and 10 more than his previous high.
Flacco did make poor decisions and miss some open receivers. But the Ravens' offensive line must share the fault for failing to protect him. Flacco was a quarterback piñata. With a brace on his sprained left knee, Flacco had to either rush throws or limp for his life.
"Joe's a warrior for us," wide receiver Torrey Smith said. "He's going to take a lot of heat. He fought through so many things this year. He battled. He didn't quit. He didn't point fingers at anyone. He shouldn't have been in this position heading into the offseason."
When the Ravens' offense did tie the game at 17 in the third quarter -- compliments of a 10-yard punt by Cincinnati -- it was their defense that betrayed them again in the fourth quarter. Keyed by a 27-yard catch-and-run by Giovani Bernard, the Bengals went 90 yards on 12 plays to go ahead 24-17 and never looked back.
"That was a statement drive for them," Harbaugh said. "That was probably the difference in the second half."
That was the fourth go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter allowed by this Ravens defense over the past four games.
In the end, the Ravens didn't have any more can't-believe-that-happened moments. There was not another last-second touchdown like in the win over the Minnesota Vikings. There was not another winning, 61-yard field goal by Justin Tucker like in Detroit.
The Ravens simply didn't measure up to the big boys in the AFC. When they controlled their playoff destiny in Week 16, the Ravens got routed 41-7 by the New England Patriots. And when they had another shot at earning a playoff berth Sunday, the Ravens couldn't beat a mistake-prone Bengals team.
As a result, the Ravens were outscored in losses to the AFC's top three seeds -- Denver, New England and Cincinnati -- by a combined score of 124-51.
"You learn more in failure than you ever will in success," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "This is a crappy feeling. We're going to learn tremendously from it, and we have to live with it for the whole offseason. You had better believe we're going to come into next season with a sense of urgency."