CINCINNATI — The Ravens' starters that did suit up for Sunday's regular-season finale, began heading to the sidelines about midway through the first quarter. Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice went first, pulling on a winter cap and a black jacket. Quarterback Joe Flacco followed him a couple of minutes later after playing two uneventful series.
By the early stages of the second quarter, they were joined by wide receiver Torrey Smith, center Matt Birk, cornerback Cary Williams and safety Ed Reed.
With an AFC North title and a home playoff game next weekend already secured, the Ravens treated their regular-season finale at Paul Brown Stadium like a preseason game. The end result – a 23-17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in front of an announced 61,565 on a frigid afternoon — hardly mattered.
All that did appear to matter to the Ravens was staying healthy — a feat that they seemingly accomplished — and setting themselves up to be at their best when the Indianapolis Colts come to M&T Bank Stadium next weekend for a first-round playoff game. The fourth-seeded Ravens and fifth-seeded Colts will play at 1 p.m. Sunday.
"The goal was two-fold: to put ourselves in the best position possible going forward into the playoffs and to win the game," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh who substituted his starters much more quickly than Bengals coach Marvin Lewis."We obviously didn't win the game and we're disappointed with that but we feel like we're in the best position we could have been going forward in the playoffs. That's really all that matters."
Like the Bengals, the Ravens finished the regular season with a 10-6 record but won their second straight AFC North crown because they had a better divisional mark (4-2) than Cincinnati (3-3). Because the Ravens won their division, they will play host in the first round even though the Colts have the better record at 11-5.
Riding the strong play of rookie quarterback Andrew Luck and the emotion of head coach and former Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano's return after his battle with leukemia, the Colts have won five of their last six games and nine of their last 11. That includes a 28-16 victory over the Houston Texans on Sunday in a game that the Texans needed to win to secure a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Ravens have dropped four of their past five games and barely played any of their regulars in Sunday's loss to the Bengals, which was sealed when defensive end Carlos Dunlap intercepted backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor and returned it 14 yards for a touchdown with 6:06 to play.
"Yeah, it's a loss [but] this game is totally different than any of the other games," Ravens cornerback Corey Graham said. "You don't really look at it that way. This is more of a get healthy, get ready for the playoffs. Some losses mean more than others and this one here don't mean a lot."
Graham maintained that the Ravens are in great position to start a playoff run, an opinion echoed throughout the Ravens' locker room.
"AFC North champions, I'll just say that," Rice said. "We battled adversity, we battled injury and we battled everything else you can imagine for a football team. I'm not really concerned about the losses. I'm more concerned about this team getting healthy. We are going to hit our stride going into the playoffs. Our record is 0-0 if you think about it."
The Ravens talked all week about Sunday's game still having significance even though they were content with where they stood. They also knew even if they had beaten the Bengals, it would still take a Miami Dolphins' victory over the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium for them to finish as the No.3 seed. The Patriots wound up winning that game, 28-0.
So Harbaugh rested veterans Anquan Boldin, Marshal Yanda, Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and Bernard Pollard. All of them are expected to face the Colts. So are fullback Vonta Leach and right tackle Kelechi Osemele, who were both removed from Sunday's game early after getting nicked up.
Rice played just one series, rushing three times for 5 yards and committing a personal foul that took the Ravens out of field-goal range on their first drive. Flacco played just two series, completing 4-of-8 passes for 34 yards and getting sacked once.
"It's an accomplishment to be in a position where you can afford to do that," Harbaugh said. "If we would have been playing for more, then we would have played them. If we had an opportunity to move up dramatically in the seeding, then we would have done that. I thought our guys did a good job, we got some young guys some experience. There are always positives to be found in that. You just can't predict how it's all going to play out necessarily. The guys that we sat down for the most part were mostly injury situations. It started with Marshal and the offensive line so once you start pulling Marshal back because that's best for him going forward, then you have to consider Joe and Ray and stuff like that."
Getting his first extensive regular-season action of his career, Taylor relieved Flacco late in the first quarter and directed a scoring drive finalized by Anthony Allen's 2-yard touchdown run. It was the first score of Allen's career.
Taylor's first career touchdown, a 1-yard scramble early in the fourth quarter, gave the Ravens a 14-13 lead. However, Josh Brown put the Bengals ahead with a 38-yard field goal and then Dunlap ended any lingering doubt with the interception return for a touchdown. Taylor completed 15-of-25 passes for 149 yards and an interception and rushed nine times for 65 yards and a touchdown.
"For me, to be honest with you, [the loss] bothered me because I'm a competitor and I hate to lose," Williams said. "I hate the fact that we didn't go into the playoffs with a win. I feel like we can build off the momentum and a lot of teams do that. For us not to win today, it's definitely disheartening to a degree, but it's not the end of the world. At the end of the day, we're still in the playoffs."
Said Graham: "You want to play. You want to win, you want to get chemistry. It would have been two games in a row where we would have been rolling. It's something that we all wanted to do but we don't make those calls. You go out there and play and when it's your time to get out, you have to be smart, too. You don't want to get hurt or be messed up for the playoffs."
About 45 minutes after the game, several Ravens still weren't sure who they'd play this weekend until they were notified by reporters. The news was bittersweet to Reed, who is extremely close with Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne and Pagano, who recruited the safety to the University of Miami.
"Chuck is like a Dad to me. It means a lot," said Reed, who acknowledged that he exchanged text messages with Pagano on Christmas. "I'd much rather see them in the AFC championship game than the first week but they're men just like us."