CINCINNATI — The Ravens' 2016 season officially ended just before 4 p.m. Sunday in The Queen City, but the reality was that it essentially was over a week earlier. As much as the Ravens talked about moving on from their bitter loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Christmas Day and their elimination from the playoffs, it was abundantly clear that they had nothing left for the Cincinnati Bengals.
Not even the emotion of wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. playing in his final NFL game could save them from a 27-10 season-ending loss to the Bengals in front of an announced 54,944 at Paul Brown Stadium. The game was as hard to watch as it appeared to play in for the Ravens, who finished the season with an 8-8 record after being seconds away from beating the Steelers to improve to 9-6 and having a chance to play for the AFC North crown.
"The emotional level wasn't where it had been in the past," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "It has to do a lot with what happened last week. Our guys came back and really worked hard. They didn't sulk, they didn't pout. We came to work, but to get to that level, you have to play to the level the way we usually do in order to win football games."
When what Harbaugh called the worst game the Ravens played all year was mercifully over, players trudged off the field in near silence. A few subtly acknowledged the handful of purple-wearing fans that had gathered near the the tunnel.
Wide receiver Breshad Perriman, whose 39-yard catch in the fourth quarter set up the visitor's lone touchdown, walked slowly by as a fan told him that he was the Ravens' future. Smith, whose career ended anticlimatically with a three-catch performance, gave his gloves to a young fan and then acknowledged the cheers as he exited toward the locker room. His future with the Ravens' uncertain, outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil didn't show any outward emotion as he walked through the tunnel.
It appeared that aside from Smith, the Ravens had spilled out all their emotion and spirit at Heinz Field, where the Steelers overcame a late deficit and won the AFC North on a touchdown catch by Antonio Brown with nine seconds to go.
"You owe it to the fans and the organization to go out and compete every week the best you can," Dumervil said. "We had a good week of practice. It was an emotional loss last week, but we tried to wash that off as much as we could. It's disappointing that we couldn't beat Cincinnati. No words can express the frustration."
The Bengals (6-9-1) got all the offense they needed by scoring touchdowns on their first two drives and jumping out to a 20-3 halftime lead. Cincinnati then put the game away on Rex Burkhead's 5-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter. Burkhead rushed for 119 yards and two scores as the Ravens' run defense completed its late-season collapse.
A Bengals' offense without top playmakers Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard, A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert moved the ball at will on the Ravens in the first half.
"You can't expect to win when you play a terrible first half in all levels of defense — the front, run defense, missing too many tackles, not stopping them in the red zone," Ravens safety Eric Weddle said. "We didn't come out the way we should have come out. That's on the leaders, it's on myself. We came back in the second half and played our style of football, but it was too late. You like the character to come back instead of rolling over, but it's unacceptable. It's not something to lay your hat on in the offseason, the way we played the first half."
Weddle was already talking about next season and how he wishes each player uses this year's poor finish as motivation. After four wins in five games moved the Ravens into a first-place tie, they dropped three of their final four games. They also lost six consecutive road games, their woes away from M&T Bank Stadium one more issue for Harbaugh and company to fix this offseason.
"It's a tough pill to swallow," said Ravens middle linebacker C.J. Mosley who was carted to the locker room late in the game with what he believes to be a calf strain. "Two years in a row we missed the playoffs — a losing season last year and .500 this year. We definitely know how hard we work. We're definitely not a .500 or losing season-type team. With the talent we have, the way we play and the way we prepare ourselves, we should definitely be in the playoffs every year."
Instead, the Ravens now have to digest missing the postseason three of the past four years. Since winning Super Bowl XLVII following the 2012 regular season, the Ravens are 31-33 in the regular season with just one playoff win.
The reasons for their struggles the past four years were on full display Sunday: the defense has been inconsistent and the offense doesn't sustain enough drives to give the team a chance every week.
In the second quarter, the Ravens had the ball first-and-goal from the 2-yard line when Joe Flacco was intercepted by safety Shawn Williams, the latest poor decision in a season full of them for the Ravens' veteran quarterback. In the third quarter, the Ravens had a third-and-2 from the Bengal's 8, and they curiously opted to throw a pass to tackle-eligible Alex Lewis on third down (it was incomplete); Flacco's pass to Pitta on fourth down was broken up.
"We're definitely going to be living with this season until we get together in the offseason and get going for next year," said Flacco, who broke the team's single-season mark for passing yards but also threw 15 interceptions in one of his most disappointing seasons as a pro. "You have to live with what you put out there this year."
Flacco will surely be back, and Harbaugh, the only head coach he's ever had, is expected to return as well for his 10th season at the helm. Beyond that, Harbaugh's coaching staff and roster is littered with question marks.
Harbaugh will likely have to make at least one coordinator hire with play caller Marty Mornhinweg not expected back in his current role. Accomplished veterans such as Dumervil, tight end Dennis Pitta, center Jeremy Zuttah and safety Lardarius Webb could be in jeopardy of not returning because of high salary cap numbers and the organization's desire to get younger. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk, starting right tackle Rick Wagner and nose tackle Brandon Williams head the list of Ravens free agents.
The team that exited Paul Brown Stadium late Sunday afternoon and the 2016 season with a whimper will surely look different than the one that reconvenes in the spring. That is probably for the best, because if the 2016 Ravens proved anything this year, it was that they weren't quite good enough.
"We have to address some issues," said outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, the team's longest-tenured player. "We have to be honest with ourselves and address those issues if we don't want to be on the outside looking in."