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Ravens have to guard against letdown after playing their Super Bowl vs. Steelers

One team might be headed to the Super Bowl and the other might have played in one last week.

That appears to be the underlying theme for Sunday's regular-season finale between the Ravens (5-10) and Cincinnati Bengals (11-4) at Paul Brown Stadium.

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The Bengals have already clinched the AFC North title and a playoff berth, and still have a chance to earn a first-round bye if they win. The Ravens were eliminated for playoff contention weeks ago, but played perhaps their best game of the year last week in a 20-17 upset win against Pittsburgh.

The burning question this week: Was that the Ravens' Super Bowl?

Forget the nonsense about how the Ravens have improved and have been a much better team in the second half of the 2015 season. They played above their norm because it was Pittsburgh week and the Ravens will play the Steelers any time, anywhere, even in a Walmart parking lot.

Now, can they reach that level again both physically and mentally against Cincinnati?

"I think we're heading in the right direction, so we're looking forward to this week [and will] continue to prepare and get ready for a great Cincinnati team," Ravens linebacker Elvis Dumervil said. "We have a lot to prove for us and try to head into the off season in the right direction. We're excited."

Getting his team emotionally ready has to be a concern for coach John Harbaugh. Nearly three weeks ago in losing to Seattle, 35-6, the Ravens basically surrendered after the Seahawks took a 21-6 lead with 8 minutes and 54 seconds left in the third quarter.

Two weeks ago against Kansas City, the Ravens lost 34-14 in a game that was competitive, but the Chiefs were never seriously threatened and the outcome was never in doubt. But last week the Ravens were more physical at the line of scrimmage than Pittsburgh on both sides of the ball, and held the NFL's hottest offense to 17 points.

But Sunday's game is in Cincinnati against a team which has won four straight against the Ravens and five of the last six. The Bengals have something to play for while it's only a matter of pride for the Ravens. Through the years, there have been other teams in the similar situations as the Ravens and they've quit on the road when they got behind.

Harbaugh doesn't anticipate that happening to the Ravens.

"It says a lot about our players. I wouldn't even for one second think that that would happen with our guys," Harbaugh said. "We have a lot of character. We have really good leadership in the locker room.

"The Bengals obviously have a lot to play for. They're playing for the potential bye. Things could fall their way where they could get the bye, and I'm quite sure that it's going to be very important to them to win the game."

The Bengals had their own tough game Monday night, losing to the Broncos, 20-17, in overtime. Cincinnati played well in the first half, but looked tired in the second, especially on defense. Maybe it was the Denver adjustments or the high altitude at Mile High Stadium, but this was not the same Cincinnati team that started the game.

So now, with a short week to prepare after the late night/early morning flight back to Cincinnati, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis has to get his team ready to play a tough division rival.

"No, I didn't think we were tired at all, actually. [As a] matter of fact, we felt – I felt – really good about where we were that way, and we've just got to be sound and make some plays at critical moments," Lewis said. "As far as the short week goes, we're well aware of that, and we'll adjust accordingly."

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If the Bengals earn a bye, the extra week might allow quarterback Andy Dalton to return from a thumb injury and start a divisional playoff game.

"It's always big to have momentum going into the playoffs, and then when it comes to the bye, we have to take care of our business," said A.J. McCarron, the Bengals' current starting quarterback. "And then, whatever happens, happens with other games. But the only thing we can worry about is what [game] we're playing in, what we can control, and go from there."

McCarron is one of several keys in the game against the Ravens. The Bengals have a lot of explosive weapons in receivers A.J. Green and Marvin Jones and tight end Tyler Eifert. McCarron started out strong in the first half against Denver, beating the Broncos man-to-man defense, but struggled when they switched to zone in the second half.

The zone cut off some of those safe, short outside throws McCarron had been making, and it was clear the Bengals didn't have faith in McCarron throwing across the middle, an area the Ravens have had problems defending this season.

The Ravens have also struggled playing zone defense.

"They're the bully right now. We've got to go fight back. We've got to win this game," Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith said. "We're definitely going out to ruin anything they've got going on."

The Ravens had that same attitude last week against Pittsburgh, but those games are on a different level. The Ravens despise the Steelers, and it will be interesting to see if they can maintain that same dislike and intensity for the Bengals.

After all, they may have just played their Super Bowl last week.

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