Five thoughts on the Ravens' 24-16 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium:
Bengals Had More Firepower; Ready To Move On From Season Gone AwryThe Ravens put up a fight against a team with more to play for, leading at halftime and staying close enough to make it a one-score game in the final minutes. But it's not a coincidence that the Bengals have now won five-straight games and six of seven in this rivalry. They have more playmakers, especially with the 2015 Ravens decimated by injuries. The Ravens had a two-point lead and the ball early in the third quarter, but they weren't crisp enough to seal the deal. Ryan Mallett threw an interception that led to Cincinnati taking the lead for good. The Ravens' next drive was halted by a pair of drops. The Bengals scored again. Down by 12 points, the Ravens simply didn't have the firepower to catch up. There was little tension in the fourth quarter for a Cincinnati team heading where the Ravens usually go, into the postseason. As for the Ravens, I think everyone is ready for the end of this season gone awry, one of their most disappointing campaigns. A chic Super Bowl pick in early September, they went 5-11, and as Bill Parcells said, you are what your record says you are. It's time to start talking about free agency, the draft, a new beginning in 2016. Everybody ready? Thought so.
Second Start Not As Strong, But Mallett Still Favorite To Back Up Flacco
Mallett's second start for the Ravens didn't go as well as the first. That's not a huge surprise. A week earlier, the Steelers strangely gave him all the time he needed to pick them apart in a short-passing-game clinic. The Bengals weren't about to give him the same kind of time. Mallett was sacked on the Ravens' first possession and spent the rest of the day under duress. It didn't help that his running game never really got on track, forcing him to throw. "Credit to them, that's a good defense," Mallett said. Often throwing on the run or while backpedaling from pressure, he tossed two interceptions and nearly a couple more. He also did some things well. He ran a nifty two-minute-drill drive that produced a score at the end of the first half. He completed a bunch of third-down throws, including seven in the first half alone. He took a fearsome beating, got up, and kept battling. But his first interception was crucial. "I should have thrown it away," he said. The result was a loss but he's now the big favorite to back up Joe Flacco in 2016.
Check out all the best photos from Cincinnati as the Ravens battle the Bengals.
Defense Was Good, But Not Good Enough
The Ravens defense authored a nice comeback story in the second half of the season, rising to No. 10 in the league in total defense before this game. That's quite a turnaround considering the pass defense was ranked as low as No. 29 at one point earlier in the season. In some respects, the unit's performance in this game fit the turnaround narrative. It was adept at making stops and getting off the field, forcing the Bengals to punt eight times. Cincinnati's A.J. Green was quiet for the most part, making just four catches for 34 yards – almost 200 yards less than he gained in the first game between the teams. Still, this wasn't a defensive performance worth framing. The Bengals pounded the ball on the ground, especially in the second half, rolling up almost 150 rushing yards – a too-common theme down the stretch of this season. AJ McCarron, a backup quarterback, was first-team efficient in leading Cincinnati touchdown drives of 62 and 81 yards. Yet again, the Ravens didn't force a turnover, a huge problem all season. Bottom line, some good defense was played, but not enough.
Three Players Who Had Strong Tryouts For Future Roles
Since the Ravens had nothing to play for other than pride, this game was really about the future. And several young Ravens auditioned for roles going forward. Maxx Williams, the rookie tight end, ended 2015 with his best game, grabbing six catches for 53 yards (with another long grab negated via replay). He moved the chains and looked like a playmaker in the making. Wide receiver Jeremy Butler also had six catches, good for 57 yards. Kamar Aiken has carried the load at receiver down the stretch, but Butler has quietly also made a mark with 31 catches, a nice total for half a season on the roster. The competition for receiver jobs is going to be intense going forward, but Butler has shown he can produce. Also, while Javorius Allen didn't have a big game Sunday, he gained enough to top 500 rushing yards for the season, a nice rookie campaign for the 2015 fourth-round pick.
Short TakesThe Ravens defense drew two offensive holding penalties in the first half after drawing just one in the team's first 15 games … Kaelin Clay returned seven punts for minimal yardage but didn't fumble. After being given the return job at midseason because of Jeremy Ross' fumbles, Clay returned 24 punts without fumbling, which is why he kept the job … A second-quarter touchdown pass from Mallett to Butler was correctly overturned via instant replay. Butler trapped the ball on the catch. On the very next play, the refs missed an obvious pass interference penalty that would have given the Ravens a first down near the red zone. They settled for a Tucker field goal … Mallett had thrown 67 passes for the Ravens without an interception when Vontaze Burfict made a diving grab of his check-down throw to Allen … The Ravens haven't won in Cincinnati since 2012.