Bengals 34, Ravens 17
STRATEGY: To the bitter end, the Ravens remained true to their identity as a passing team, despite Joe Flacco's obvious pain and hampered mobility due to a sprained left knee. Flacco threw the football 50 times for 192 yards and was sacked twice and had three interceptions. The Ravens ran the ball just 14 times, for 47 yards. Running back Ray Rice was benched for the first half after one carry for 1 yard, later returning with limited effectiveness. The Ravens stopped using running back Bernard Pierce after he had five runs for 28 yards total in the first half. The Ravens tried to create tempo with Flacco operating out of the shotgun on 61 of 69 snaps. Tight end Dennis Pitta was heavily involved, targeted 11 times for eight catches and 63 yards in his fourth game back from a hip injury. The Ravens tried to spread the ball around, as eight different players caught passes. Wide receivers Marlon Brown, Jacoby Jones and Torrey Smith were targeted nine, eight and seven times, respectively, with little success beyond Brown's one touchdown catch. The Ravens defense didn't blitz often. Andy Dalton wasn't sacked or hit all game, but seemed again confused by Ravens coverage schemes, throwing four interceptions after three in their first meeting this season.
PERSONNEL: The Ravens stuck with their usual three wide-receiver sets, with Smith, Brown and Jones playing 68, 65 and 62 snaps, respectively. Pitta often lined up as a traditional tight end, playing 90 percent of all offensive snaps, while backup Ed Dickson got a season-low seven snaps. It was both players' final game before they become unrestricted free agents. Despite his first-half disappearance, Rice played 48 snaps, 31 more than Pierce. Fullback Vonta Leach was barely used, playing four snaps. Cornerback Lardarius Webb and middle linebacker Daryl Smith played all but one snap. Cornerback Jimmy Smith, free safety Matt Elam and strong safety James Ihedigbo played 67, 66 and 65 snaps, respectively. Rush linebacker Terrell Suggs and nose tackle Haloti Ngata each had 81 percent participation. Elvis Dumervil (no tackles) got 31 snaps at strong-side linebacker, 13 fewer than Courtney Upshaw (one tackle). With defensive tackle Arthur Jones out with a concussion, nose tackle Terrence Cody played 27 snaps.
WHAT WENT RIGHT: Cornerback Corey Graham alertly took the ball away from Bengals wide receiver Marvin Jones to intercept Dalton's first pass of the game. Jimmy Smith snatched a pass away from wide receiver A.J. Green in the end zone for an interception, while Webb and Ihedigbo also picked off passes from Dalton. Kicker Justin Tucker hit three field goals, finishing the season with a franchise-record 38 field goals, displaying leg strength and accuracy. Flacco and Pitta regained some of their old rhythm and showed shades of their Super Bowl season. Elam finished with a team-high 10 tackles, making some impressive stops.
WHAT WENT WRONG: Elam got completely lost and couldn't match the acceleration of Green on his 53-yard touchdown catch, a breakdown that exposed Elam's lack of instincts in deep coverage and the Ravens' failure to have someone bump Green at the line, so as to not let him reach top speed so easily. Suggs had one inconsequential tackle Sunday, finishing with one sack and 20 tackles over the second half of the season. He was repeatedly fooled by Dalton on zone-read plays, aggressively crashing down inside to stop the running back and failing to set the edge outside. The Ravens couldn't match elusive Bengals rookie running back Giovani Bernard's moves. Jimmy Smith was flagged for pass interference in the end zone, leading to a fourth-quarter touchdown. Flacco and his receivers were obviously off. Jacoby Jones caught just one of eight passes thrown to him, for 11 yards. Smith had three catches for 27 yards on seven targets. They all might need to spend even more time together during the offseason at informal throwing sessions to improve their timing. Rice gained 15 yards on six carries and caught seven passes for 35 yards. Pierce struggled badly in pass protection. The Ravens went 1-for-4 in the red zone, continuing their trend as one of the worst red-zone teams in the NFL. Their last rushing touchdown by a running back was Nov. 17, against the Chicago Bears, on a 1-yard score by Rice.
TURNING POINT: During a 12-play, 90-yard march that spanned the third and fourth quarters, the Bengals reassumed control of the game and took 6 minutes, 41 seconds off the clock. It was keyed by a 27-yard screen pass to Bernard, who eluded a tackle attempt by Jimmy Smith. Three plays later, Suggs bit on Dalton's inside-handoff fake to Bernard. Dalton scored untouched to break a 17-17 tie, and the game was never competitive again.
X-FACTOR: The Ravens' flaws were on full display again in their season finale, leaving them with an offseason to ponder why they can't run the football, why Flacco is suddenly so prone to interceptions, and how to overhaul an offensive line that doesn't open up enough holes and allowed Flacco to be sacked 48 times. Among other needs, the Ravens need to improve their red-zone offense, get more consistency and separation from the receivers, build a more consistent pass rush and commit fewer penalties.