The Ravens head to Kansas City and the land of barbecue for a playoff game Sunday, but they're entering the postseason far from cooking.
Three starters left the games with injuries (safety Ed Reed, offensive tackle Michael Oher and cornerback Josh Wilson) and didn't return. The offense is limping around just as much after producing a season-low 199 yards. And the defense, which forced five turnovers, still needed Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer to overthrow a receiver at the Ravens' 2-yard line to escape with another last-minute win.
Outside of the Ravens ending a three-game losing streak to Cincinnati and finishing with their best record (12-4) in coach John Harbaugh's three seasons, this was technically a meaningless game. The Ravens had already clinched a playoff berth last week and knew they would be a wild-card team by halftime because Pittsburgh was already crushing Cleveland.
A 9 ?-point favorite, the Ravens were expected to handle a Bengals team that had its top three receivers sidelined, a head coach on his way out and a quarterback who could be following him. Instead, while other AFC playoff teams (New England, Pittsburgh and the New York Jets) were roughing up their opponents, the Ravens were sweating out their 11th game decided by a touchdown or less this season.
"We're definitely going to have to perform better," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "We've got to be prepared to play 60 minutes, especially in the playoffs. Because if you look around the league, everybody that's in the playoffs took care of business today."
Actually, two of the AFC playoff teams who struggled the most Sunday were the Ravens and the Chiefs. Kansas City, who went from last-to-first in the AFC West in one season, dropped to the No. 4 seed after losing their first home game of the season, a 31-10 drubbing to the Oakland Raiders.
The Ravens came to M&T Bank Stadium, where attendance was announced at 71,088, with aspirations of an AFC North title, a No. 2 seed and a first-round bye. Those hopes were short-lived as Pittsburgh pounded Cleveland, 41-9.
Having won the most road playoff games in the last decade -- six from 2000 to 2009 -- the Ravens understand the challenge that awaits them at Kansas City.
"Our track record says we'll play anybody at any time anywhere," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "Any time you can pack up a great defense like that and take it on the road, you have a chance to win."
The defense, though, has to bring the Ravens' offense along. Of the Ravens' 13 points scored, 10 were converted off turnovers.
Ed Reed's first interception set up a Billy Cundiff 25-yard field goal in the first quarter. A fumble by Cincinnati wide receiver Jerome Simpson in Bengals territory led to the Ravens' only touchdown (a 7-yard run by Ray Rice in the third quarter).
"It wasn't a great day but we got a win," said quarterback Joe Flacco, who was 14-for-19 for 125 yards. "You have to be happy about that. We're going to the playoffs for bigger and better things. That's the important thing right now."
The Ravens' best offensive play came after Reed's first pick -- a flea flicker that led to a 37-yard screen pass to Todd Heap. The worst one was at the end of the first half, when Flacco saw a wide-open Heap near the end zone too late and got intercepted.
An offense that has struggled in the second half lately hit a new low Sunday. After halftime, the Ravens gained 45 yards and two first downs.
"I think our defense played out of their minds," Harbaugh said. "Offensively, I'm disappointed with some of the things we did. I'm a little bit frustrated with some of those things, but we have to find a way to win the next game."
Harbaugh added, "But we are who we are, and we have to move forward with that. I'm very confident that our offense, our coaches, our players and our team ? will find a way to win from here on out."
In what could be Marvin Lewis' last game as the Cincinnati coach, the Bengals repeatedly showed why they have gone from division champions to a last-place team in one year.
Two of Cincinnati's fumbles were the result of the Bengals simply dropping the ball. There was a missed 29-yard field goal after a 16-play drive and a kickoff that went out of bounds to start the Ravens at midfield.
But the Bengals rallied in the fourth quarter, closing to 13-7 on an 11-yard touchdown pass from Carson Palmer to Simpson. After the Ravens third straight possession without a first down, Cincinnati was 2 yards away from the upset.
On fourth down, Palmer overthrew running back Cedric Peerman along the left side to end the game with 10 seconds remaining. It's unknown why Palmer chose to essentially throw the ball away on the Bengals' last gasp.
"It was a game that we had a chance and didn't finish it," said Palmer, who might have thrown his last pass for the Bengals because he reportedly won't take a pay cut next season.
The Ravens are hoping they'll have their injured players back for the playoffs. Wilson suffered a shoulder stinger in the first quarter, Oher limped off the field in the third quarter with a sprained knee and Reed left with a rib injury in the fourth quarter.
Ravens coach Harbaugh said he wouldn't pull his starters even if Pittsburgh had an insurmountable lead and followed through with those words. A team spokesman said the team kept the injured players from returning as a precautionary measure.
The players supported Harbaugh's stance to remain in the game even though it had no bearing in the playoffs. Reed, who injured his ribs on the second interception before halftime, continued playing even though coaches asked him to come out of the game.
"Like I said, it's a conference game. It's Cincinnati. You want to continue to play," said Reed, who finished as the NFL's interceptions leader with eight despite missing the first six games of the season. "Next week wasn't even here yet. I wasn't even thinking about that."
The Ravens' focus now turns to the Chiefs, even though the players know what really stands in their way.
"If we're playing our best, no one can stop us," running back Ray Rice said. "We can only stop ourselves."
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