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With little at stake, Ravens aim to finish season with a win

There will be weeks, even months, to review the roster, make decisions on free agents and decide on a game plan to fortify a team that wasn't quite good enough when it needed to be this season. There's still one game left to play, however, and that's what has Ravens coach John Harbaugh's attention this week.

Less than 24 hours after the Ravens had their playoff hopes extinguished by a 31-27 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Harbaugh began film study of Sunday's opponent, the Cincinnati Bengals. Yet, the disappointment, from a last-second loss to their archrival, goals that went unfulfilled and another early end to a football season, still lingered.

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"When you put that much into it — heart, soul, effort, belief in one another, a lot of hard work — it's going to sting. It's going to sting for us, it's going to sting for our fans, it's going to sting for everybody because we all care," Harbaugh said Monday. "That's the nature of the game. That's the nature of football and that's the nature of life. That's where we're at, but now all of our attention goes to Cincinnati. We have a week of football left to play and we intend to make the most of it. I know all of our players feel the same way."

There's nothing tangible for the Ravens to gain from Sunday's matchup with the Bengals, who are also playing out the string at 5-9-1 after they made the playoffs the previous five seasons. With a win, the Ravens would finish 9-7 and secure their seventh winning season in Harbaugh's nine-year tenure. It would also mean winning at Paul Brown Stadium for the first time since January 2012.

But it won't change the fact that at approximately 4:30 p.m. Sunday, the Ravens' season will be over and for the third time in four years, they'll be forced to watch the playoffs from afar.

"Very disappointing," Ravens safety Lardarius Webb said in the visiting locker room at Heinz Field on Sunday night. "We worked our butts off all year to be at this point and at least have a chance. We fought hard, but we just came up short in the end."

The Ravens had been so close to going to Cincinnati with a chance to win one game to capture their first AFC North title since 2012. Webb was among a number of Ravens who said late Sunday they were sure they were going to beat Pittsburgh.

However, the Ravens couldn't hold a 20-10 lead early in the fourth quarter or a 27-24 advantage in the final minute. Ben Roethlisberger's 4-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown, the Steelers' third touchdown in an 11-plus minute span of the fourth quarter, sealed the Ravens' postseason fate and clinched the AFC North for Pittsburgh.

In the end, the Ravens inability to put four quality quarters together, a constant problem during the up-and-down season, cost them. At times, they looked capable of beating anybody. For other stretches, they did more damage to themselves with turnovers, penalties and other mistakes.

"I'm personally motivated anyway. I think all of our guys are very highly motivated no matter what," Harbaugh said. "Of course we feel very excited about where we are as a football team. I know we're a good football team. I know we're a very good football team. That's evident in the way we play. That game hinges here and there. It can fall on a play here or there. That's how close the National Football League is. That's how our guys played, that's how hard they played. It was a dramatic environment, it was a tough environment to be on the road. Our guys handled it very well. There's just no denying that. They made another play in the end when it was all said and done, and that's what they get credit for."

Harbaugh said the Ravens will play their healthy starters Sunday. He all but ruled out cornerback Jimmy Smith, who is dealing with a high ankle sprain. Starting right tackle Rick Wagner, who suffered a concussion against the Steelers, is probably unlikely to play as well. However, Harbugh vowed that Sunday will be business as usual.

"I think the whole point is you try to do the best you can. You try to win," Harbaugh said. "We talked about it in the locker room after the game. That is what I pointed toward, the next game. We want to go win it. We do want to be 9-7. It's important. It's important to have one more win than we potentially could have. I do not care what the record is. We want to go win the game. That is what we do this for; that is what it's all about. Our guys are going to be fired up to do it. You know how they have handled adversity throughout the course of the season. ... That's not going to change."

Still, this is unfamiliar territory for a few prominent Ravens. In his first seven seasons, quarterback Joe Flacco had never played in a game in which the Ravens were already mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. By the time the Ravens were out of it last year, Flacco was on injured reserve after tearing the ACL and MCL in his left knee in November.

"I don't think about the past three years, really. I don't think about the past eight years. All you can really think about is being in the moment," Flacco said following Sunday's game. "When you think back to all of those years, I mean, we usually had to win the last game of the season to get in the playoffs. We were able to do it. It comes down to the last couple of games and this year was no different. I think next week will be the only truly meaningless game, in terms of playoff implications, that I have played in."

But for Flacco and others, that won't change the approach.

"It's just tough," Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta said. "I've never been in a position where going into the final week there is just nothing to play for. Our goal is to get to 9-7 and the Bengals will be our next test. We want to win that game."

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