NFL Nation: 2013 Week 17 BAL at CIN

Defense proves it can carry Bengals

December, 29, 2013
CINCINNATI -- Frustrated, Marvin Jones was about ready to put his head in his hands and disappear from the 62,000-plus who had just filed into Paul Brown Stadium.

His teammates on the Cincinnati Bengals' defense wouldn't have let him do that even if he really tried.

Just 18 seconds into Sunday afternoon's game, the Bengals receiver had a pass snatched from him as he and quarterback Andy Dalton tried to catch the Baltimore Ravens off guard on a first-play "Go route" down the far sideline. As Jones jogged off the field after the interception, he heard from defenders intent on helping him make up for the miscue.

"Hey, you're all right," some of them said. "We got this," others added.

They sure did get it. Even with the Ravens beginning a drive at the Cincinnati 21 and coming within yards of snatching the game's early momentum with a touchdown, the Bengals' defense rose up the way it has countless times before this season. Held to just one yard on the drive, the Ravens entered the red zone and were denied a touchdown. For the sixth time in 12 red-zone tries on Cincinnati's home turf this season, the Bengals didn't let an opponent cross the goal line.

By the end of Sunday's game, a 34-17 victory, the Bengals defenders went on to prevent their 21st red zone touchdown in 41 total tries this season.

"That's our job regardless of where the team gets the ball. It's to go out and stop them," defensive end Michael Johnson said. "We can't worry about how they got it there. We just got to focus on doing our job as hard as we can and taking care of our business."

That mentality has helped Cincinnati's defense pick up its offense this year. It's a comforting fact for the Bengals as they prepare to host the San Diego Chargers next weekend in the opening round of the playoffs.

"The saying may be cliche, but defenses do win championships," cornerback Chris Crocker said.

That's exactly why he didn't flinch when asked which unit was the strength of the team.

"It would have to be the defense," Crocker said. "We've played really well all year. Regardless of the situations, we just stuck together and played our butts off. It didn't matter what the score said. If we were down, or if we were up, we just kept playing all year."

Cincinnati's back-to-back red zone drives that ended in Ravens field goals at the start of the game were prime examples of the type of play that Crocker proudly boasted. Thanks in part to interceptions on the Bengals' first two offensive drives, the defense was slapped with the unenviable task of not only holding for one field goal, but holding for two before 13 minutes had passed.

Very easily, the Bengals could have been down 14-0 at the first-quarter break. But thanks to the two defensive stands and a subsequent four-play Bengals drive that ended on a 53-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open A.J. Green, they went to the second quarter leading, 7-6.

"Just to have a defense like what we have, it's a blessing," said Jones, who later made up for his lost interception with a one-handed grab. "There's a lot of times we feed off of [the defense]. If we get started slow and they go and they get their shutouts and their stops, then we're like, 'OK, let's go. Now it's our turn.'"

While Bengals defenders like Crocker are also confident in the "explosive" nature of a Cincinnati offense that scored 40 or more points four times at home this season, they are comforted in knowing their defense can be the team's postseason difference-maker.

Around the time the Bengals found out they had received a postseason berth last week, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer told his players to take a look at the top of the league rankings in total defense.

"He said, 'If you look at the teams going into the playoffs, our defense is one of the best out there,'" defensive tackle Domata Peko said. "Like they say, 'defenses win championships.'"

Entering Sunday night's Eagles-Cowboys game, the Bengals ranked third in the league in total defense. The other top-5 teams also reached the playoffs, but are from the NFC. The next-highest AFC defense that made the playoffs was ranked 19th.

Bengals need a patient Andy Dalton

December, 29, 2013
CINCINNATI -- Has a quarterback ever been given more nicknames by fans and media than the Cincinnati Bengals' Andy Dalton?

The latest nickname for Dalton has popped up: "Greedy Andy."

When Cincinnati hosts the San Diego Chargers next week in the opening round of the playoffs, the Bengals have to hope they've completely vanquished Dalton's latest incarnation.

The desperate, overly aggressive and apparently touchdown-starved person who got behind center Sunday afternoon against the Ravens could have cost Cincinnati a victory in its regular-season finale. If he shows up again in a few days, he just might cost the Bengals an entire season.

There are any number of reasons the third-seed Bengals could fall flat next weekend. There also, naturally, are any number of reasons why they could succeed, too. One way to increase the odds of a victory? Prevent your quarterback from throwing four interceptions.

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
AP Photo/Tom UhlmanIf the Bengals draft a QB, it's not because the team has lost confidence in starter Andy Dalton, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said.
That could be easier said than done.

"Sometimes when he gets into a rhythm he gets too comfortable and gets a little greedy, so to speak," offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said.

Now you know where the new nickname comes from.

Right before making that comment, Gruden was discussing how complacent his quarterback can sometimes be when the offense appears to be rolling. Decision making in those instances can be problematic for Dalton, who has misread routes or been a touch off with the precise delivery of his passes. Gruden felt that was the exact player who showed up in Miami on the last Thursday night of October. Against the Dolphins in that game, Dalton passed for 338 yards and three interceptions in an overtime loss that was decided by a walk-off safety.

Had it not been for several game-saving plays by Cincinnati's defense on Sunday, including three fourth-quarter interceptions, Dalton might have added another high-yardage but turnover-filled performance to his ledger.

"It was a roller coaster, man," Gruden said of Dalton's day. "He was either really, really good, as good as anybody, or he made a couple of really poor decisions. We need to eliminate those."

That might be the best summation of Dalton's latest performance. He was flat-out stellar the time he saw A.J. Green sprint past Baltimore's secondary, only to be hit in stride for a 53-yard touchdown pass. But when Dalton got picked off four times, including once on a ball that was thrown well over Green's head, Dalton didn't look so strong.

The greediest the quarterback got Sunday was in the middle of the fourth quarter when he tried to force a pass on first-and-goal from the Ravens' 1-yard line. One play after Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis plowed through Baltimore's defensive line with a physical tackle-breaking carry, Dalton was picked off when he tried to dump a fade route to a single-covered Green.

"I got a little greedy and I tried to take a shot," Dalton said. "I didn't throw it how I wanted to, and should have ran it in or handed it off."

There's that word again.

He's right, though. Instead of throwing short on the fade that looked more like a flat, he should have either switched to a play that would allow Giovani Bernard to run in or scramble out and take it in on the run himself. So why didn't he do that?

"Usually I'd put in goal-line personnel and we didn't have that," Gruden said. "We were in two tight ends and two receivers and thought they were in goal-line defense. We knew with numbers that we would have been splattered with a run, so we threw a fade. ... [But] he should have handed it off. But I'm not mad. We won the game, 34-17. Had we lost the game, that play would have been glaring and stuck out in our minds for a long time. But luckily our defense held us up and covered our backs because that was a terrible play and a terrible call."

Gruden wasn't shy about admitting that he had a few play calls that he wished he could take back. He shouldered as much of the blame for Dalton's performance as the quarterback himself.

While head coach Marvin Lewis wasn't pleased with the up-and-down nature of Dalton's play Sunday, he still couldn't feel more confident about where his quarterback can take him now that the playoffs are beginning. Performances like this one won't be repeated, he believes.

"I feel great about where Andy is right now," Lewis said. "He just keeps playing and is really unflappable. He is in a good spot as we move forward. We just have to coach better and play better as we move forward."
Joe Flacco Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun/MCT via Getty Images"We didn't play well," Joe Flacco said, "and at 8-8, we don't deserve to be there" in the postseason.

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.

Baltimore's 34-17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals hammered home the point that there was no magic left for the Ravens to overcome their flaws.

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.

[+] EnlargeMarlon Brown
John Grieshop/Getty ImagesMarlon Brown's touchdown tied it, but the Ravens watched Cincinnati score the game's final 17 points.
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 piņata. 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.

"[Defensive end] Chris Canty said this week, 'Opportunities are never lost. They are taken by someone else,'" safety James Ihedigbo said. "That's truly what happened today."

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."

Rapid Reaction: Cincinnati Bengals

December, 29, 2013

CINCINNATI -- A few thoughts on the Cincinnati Bengals' 34-17 victory against the Baltimore Ravens.

What it means: It may not have been pretty, but the Bengals' victory Sunday was just what they needed to build a little momentum entering the postseason. All week players and coaches talked about how they didn't plan on packing it in despite having already earned a playoff berth and another division title. They had every intention of playing their starters throughout the ballgame and doing whatever they could to beat their AFC North-rival Ravens, thereby helping keep the defending league champions out of the playoffs. If the win itself was the good, the bad and ugly were the four turnovers and poorly struck punt the Bengals had in the ballgame. If a team is going to have those miscues, it has to be glad to have them in a win. They could serve as good motivation for Cincinnati, too, as the Bengals look to correct their issues as they get ready for postseason.

Stock watch: Andy Dalton -- Falling. It's hard to truly say the Bengals quarterback's stock is trending downward since he threw for two touchdowns and was close to going beyond the 300-yard mark for a sixth time this season, but he didn't look as good Sunday as he had for most of the rest of the month. Along with his prolific passing numbers, Dalton also threw four interceptions. His first interception came on a deep ball on the game's first play. That pass was slightly underthrown as receiver Marvin Jones had to slow his stride in order to get underneath the ball. When he did, he had the ball ripped from him by Corey Graham. The next interception was the result of miscommunication between Dalton and receiver A.J. Green. They will need to clean that up heading into the postseason. Dalton's performance also came on the same day he set Bengals single-season records in passing yards and touchdowns.

Near-costly Shank: Bengals punter Shawn Powell, brought on two weeks ago in the wake of Kevin Huber's season-ending jaw injury, had a near-costly shank on a third-quarter punt. As he reached back to kick the ball, it appeared his foot got caught in the turf before swinging through and glancing off the ball. When the ball left his foot, it hooked immediately to the left, sailing over the Bengals' sideline and into the first two rows of stadium seats. Altogether, the punt traveled 10 yards, two yards shy of the first down marker the Bengals would have needed to reach if they went for it on fourth-and-12. On the ensuing Ravens drive, Baltimore scored and added a two-point conversion to tie the game. The sequence ended up not hurting the Bengals after all.

Dre's day: Backup cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick had the best performance of his young career, coming away with two interceptions late in the ballgame. Both pickoffs came on consecutive plays on consecutive drives. The second opened the Ravens' second-to-last drive and resulted in an interception return for a touchdown with about four minutes remaining that effectively put the game out of reach.

What's next? The playoffs are up next for the Bengals, who won't know their opponent until the conclusion of Sunday's late afternoon games. They either will play Pittsburgh or San Diego next week at Paul Brown Stadium. If the Patriots lose later Sunday afternoon, Cincinnati will have the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye.

Rapid Reaction: Baltimore Ravens

December, 29, 2013

CINCINNATI -- A few thoughts on the Baltimore Ravens' 34-17 loss at the Cincinnati Bengals.

What it means: The Ravens (8-8) failed to make the playoffs for the first time in coach John Harbaugh's six seasons. Baltimore's five-year run of reaching the postseason, which was the longest current streak in the NFL, ended when the Ravens lost and the Pittsburgh Steelers routed the Cleveland Browns. The Ravens would've made the playoffs with a win because the Miami Dolphins lost at home to the New York Jets. That will sting the most for the defending Super Bowl champions.

Stock watch: Falling: Fourth-quarter defense. This has been a bad trend for the Ravens, whose defense has been great for three quarters but then has a major lapse in the fourth. After the Ravens tied the game at 17 (on a Marlon Brown touchdown catch and a Ray Rice two-point conversion), the defense allowed the Bengals to march 90 yards on 12 plays to take the lead on Andy Dalton's 1-yard touchdown run. The Ravens never regained momentum.

Flacco sets (bad) record: Joe Flacco, the reigning Super Bowl MVP, threw three interceptions in the fourth quarter to set a Ravens single-season record. He finished with 22 interceptions on the season, three more than any other Ravens quarterback. The record is indicative of the lack of support around Flacco and the pressure on him to make plays. The Bengals tacked on a field goal off Flacco's first turnover to extend the lead to 27-17. His third one, which was thrown behind Torrey Smith, was returned 21 yards for a touchdown.

Failing to capitalize on turnovers: The Ravens' secondary had only eight interceptions in the first 15 games. On Sunday, Baltimore's defensive backs picked off Dalton four times. These turnovers could've been more damaging for the Bengals. But the Ravens managed just three field goals off the interceptions.

Deep trouble: The Ravens' 6-0 lead in the first quarter disappeared when A.J. Green caught a 53-yard touchdown pass. Ravens rookie safety Matt Elam was burned so badly that he tried to hold Green to stop the Pro Bowl receiver from getting behind him, and he missed on that, too. It was the 17th pass of at least 40 yards completed against Ravens, which leads the NFL.

What's next: The Ravens' season is over. They are the fifth defending Super Bowl champion not to make the playoffs over the past 11 seasons.

Prediction time: Ravens at Bengals

December, 29, 2013
CINCINNATI -- Which quarterback is going to break his slump Sunday?

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has lost three of his last four games at Paul Brown Stadium, throwing two touchdowns and six interceptions for a 51.1 passer rating in that stretch. Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton is 1-4 in his career against the Ravens, with his only win coming in a Week 17 game last year that was meaningless.

This is a big game for both quarterbacks and their teams. The Ravens need a win and a loss by either the Miami Dolphins or San Diego Chargers to reach the playoffs (Baltimore can also qualify if the Dolphins, Chargers and Steelers all lose). The Bengals, the AFC North champions, can clinch a first-round bye if they beat the Ravens and the New England Patriots lose at home to the Buffalo Bills.

Here are the official ESPN predictions (with their prediction record for the Ravens in parentheses):

Jamison Hensley (11-4), Ravens reporter: Bengals, 28-20. The Ravens typically bounce back from demoralizing defeats. But with a banged-up Flacco, there's not a sense that Baltimore can get up from this knockout blow, especially against a division opponent that plays its best at home.

Coley Harvey, Bengals reporter: Bengals, 31-21.

Eric Allen (6-9): Bengals

Mike Golic (9-6): Bengals

Merril Hoge (7-8): Bengals

Ron Jaworski (9-6): Bengals

KC Joyner (8-7): Bengals

Chris Mortensen (7-8): Bengals

Adam Schefter (8-7): Bengals

Mark Schlereth (8-7): Bengals

Seth Wickersham (8-7): Ravens

Tom Jackson (7-7): Bengals

Keyshawn Johnson (7-7): Bengals

Mike Ditka (6-9): Bengals

Cris Carter (6-8): Bengals