CINCINNATI - This was something new for John Harbaugh, a meaningless game to end the regular season. Harbaugh decided to rest many of his regulars to get ready for the postseason.
With his inactive list populated by six starters and several of the active ones playing less than a quarter, the Baltimore Ravens lost to the Cincinnati Bengals 23-17 before 61,565 disinterested fans at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday.
"The goal was two-fold, to put ourselves in the best position possible going into the playoffs, and to win the game," Harbaugh said. "We didn't win the game. We're obviously disappointed with that, but we feel like we're in the best position we could have been going forward going into the playoffs, and that's all that matters."
The Ravens will host the Indianapolis Colts in a Wild Card Game next weekend, and there will be plenty of talk about Chuck Pagano's return to Baltimore.
The former Ravens defensive coordinator has waged a courageous fight against leukemia, and his story has won fans for the Colts around America.
"What he's been through is phenomenal, but we're all competitors so that gets set aside," Harbaugh said. "They're going to come in here with every intention of winning the football game, so we're going to have to play our best football in order to beat them."
The Ravens end the regular season with four losses in the last five weeks. From a 9-2 record just after Thanksgiving, they finish 10-6.
"Right now, our record is 0-0," Ray Rice said.
Rice was rested after just two series, and so was quarterback Joe Flacco.
With just under four minutes left in the first quarter, Tyrod Taylor walked onto the field to relieve Flacco. It was the first time in Flacco's five-year career that he had been removed from a regular season game before the fourth quarter.
When Flacco and Rice left, they joined the inactive Anquan Boldin. That meant real playing time for little-used members of the offense Anthony Allen, Billy Bajema and Deonte Thompson.
Taylor's first extended regular season action produced an 80-yard touchdown drive without a pass being attempted.
After Allen's two-yard touchdown run with 17 seconds to play in the first quarter, Ed Reed joined the others on the sidelines.
"If we were playing for more, then we would have played them. If we had an opportunity to move up dramatically in the standings, we would have," Harbaugh said.
Baltimore could have moved from the fourth to the third seed with a win and a New England loss to Miami. That would have meant a rematch with the Bengals (10-6) at M&T Bank Stadium next weekend, but instead it's Andrew Luck and the Colts. The way the regular season end doesn't matter to the Ravens.
"It doesn't worry us because this is the playoffs and it's different," Reed said.
The Bengals qualified for the playoffs a week before, too, but they seemed to take the game more urgently. Cincinnati was set with the final playoff spot, and this was the last time their fans would see them this season.
With 39 seconds left in the first half, Cincinnati tied the score at 7-7 on a 14-yard touchdown pass from Andy Dalton to Marvin Jones.
Bruce Gradkowski replaced Dalton at quarterback for the second half. His brother, Gino a Baltimore backup center, replaced Matt Birk, in the first quarter.
Taylor showed off his option skills, if not his passing. He was 15-for-25 for 150 yards, but rushed nine times for 65 yards.
"I knew I was going to play, but I didn't know when Joe was going to come out until right before the game," Taylor said.
Josh Brown's 47-yard field goal with 6:15 remaining in the third quarter gave Cincinnati a 10-7 lead.
Jimmy Smith's 21-yard pass interference penalty gave the Bengals the ball at Baltimore's 15-yard line, but Cincinnati had to settle for a 32-yard field goal by Brown that increased the lead to 13-7 with 2:24 left.
Taylor's one-yard touchdown run capped off his best drive, one that took Baltimore 81 yards. It gave the Ravens a 14-13 lead with 12:50 left.
Justin Tucker missed a 45-yard field goal attempt with 8:54 to go. It was just his third miss of the season and came after 11 consecutive successful attempts.
Brown hit on a 38-yard field goal attempt with 7:16 left to put Cincinnati ahead 16-14.
Soon after that, Taylor scrambled to his right, threw weakly, and was picked off by Carlos Dunlap, whose 14-yard interception return gave Cincinnati a 23-14 lead with 6:06 to play.
Tucker's 49-yard field goal with 1:21 to play cut the Bengals lead to 23-17. An onside kick failed, and it was time to think about the playoffs.
"Yes, it's a loss, but this game is totally different than any other games,' Corey Graham said. "This is more of a get healthy, get ready to roll for the playoffs loss. Some losses mean more than others, and this one here, don't mean a lot."