CINCINNATI -- The Bengals didn't know. They had just qualified for the playoffs, and word was racing electronically through the crowd, but the Bengals didn't know. More than 1,200 miles away Denver had lost to Kansas City, clinching a playoff berth for the Bengals -- but they didn't know. They were locked into the moment, and at the moment they trailed the Ravens by eight points, and they were 33 yards from the end zone, and there were 14 seconds left.
The crowd started cheering, and the Bengals didn't know why. On the sideline, veteran cornerback Nate Clements asked a teammate, "Was there a flag on Baltimore?"
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Nope. No flag. Otherwise, the teammate had no clue.
On the Ravens' sideline, they didn't know either. Well, they knew they were in the playoffs, but they'd known that for weeks. The Ravens had clinched their playoff spot a while back, but not until Sunday would they learn if they were going to the postseason in style as the AFC North champion -- with a first-round bye, then a home game the following week -- or if they would be forced to slog through three games as a wild card, most likely none of them at home, to reach the Super Bowl.
"And they were throwing into the end zone," said Ravens safety Ed Reed.
Yes they were. The Bengals were throwing into the end zone, trying to win a game it turns out they didn't really need -- and trying to deprive the Ravens of a victory that Baltimore desperately needed.
Confusing day, all the way around.
Not until Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton's final pass into the end zone, toward the triple-covered Venus Flytrap known as A.J. Green, was ruled incomplete did the Ravens know -- as 24-16 winners against Cincinnati -- that they had won the division, the bye and the right to play their playoff opener at home.
But still, the Bengals didn't know.
"I know nobody on offense had any idea," said Bengals running back Bernard Scott.
Into the locker room went the Bengals, where they sat silently, waiting to hear something -- anything -- from coach Marvin Lewis. He walked inside and broke the news quickly, not boring the team with details from Denver or Oakland, where a loss to San Diego by the Raiders also would have clinched a playoff spot for the Bengals. Lewis didn't waste time with any of that.
"We knew the scenarios," Scott said. "We just needed to know if we were in or out."
They were in.
"We're in," Lewis told the team. Some of them already knew. Nate Clements, for one, did not. He burst into tears, and more than 15 minutes later his eyes were still swollen and red as he talked to reporters. Pacman Jones walked by, saw Clements' puffy face and poked fun at the 11-year-veteran.
|Baltimore made big plays when needed, thanks to Ray Rice's two long touchdowns runs (70, 51). They didn't need to be much more, though, with QB Joe Flacco not making the mistakes that have traditionally doomed him against the Bengals. In the end, Baltimore didn't turn the ball over in a conservative approach and that was the difference in the game.|
|The Bengals inability to put together a complete game continues to doom them as they finish the regular season 1-7 against teams with winning records. However, at the end of the day, none of what happened at Paul Brown Stadium mattered as Cincinnati made the playoffs anyway. Regardless of how, for the youngest team in the AFC that opened the year with zero expectations to be playing in the postseason overshadows any disappointment on Sunday.|
|By Paul Dehner |
"Stop crying, Nate!" Jones teased. "Everyone in the world's going to see you cry."
Too late, of course. We saw it, and Clements didn't mind. He had waited 11 years for this moment, the first 10 spent in Buffalo and San Francisco, years without a playoff spot. In his 11th season, back in his home state -- Clements went to high school near Cleveland, then played collegiately at Ohio State -- the popular Clements was on the cusp of the playoffs. Which is why Lewis had him speak to the team on Saturday night.
"I'd like to keep that between me and the guys," Clements said, which is fair enough. The guess here is that Clements got emotional Saturday night, just as he got emotional late Sunday afternoon.
Hey, the emotions were running high in both locker rooms. This was one of those rare, almost-never-happens days in the NFL when the game ended and both teams were smiling. The Bengals were relieved, while the Ravens were thrilled. Baltimore has been unbeatable at home this season, going 8-0 while putting up a 4-4 mark on the road, and the team now will play at least one playoff game at home, and maybe two, before the Super Bowl.
"And we have a lot of guys dinged up in here," Reed said. "We need to use this week smart, heal up and rest up and get ready for the final push."
The Ravens have the talent and experience to expect a Super Bowl berth. The Bengals aren't there -- there is talent in Cincinnati's locker room, but almost zero postseason experience -- but they have something almost equally compelling: They are catching the breaks at the right time.
It started last week when they beat Arizona 23-16 after Cardinals receiver Early Doucet inexplicably tripped on fourth down as he was about to haul in the game-tying touchdown.
It continued Sunday, when the Jets lost earlier in the day, and then the Raiders and Broncos lost as well, meaning the Bengals could lose to Baltimore -- as they did, of course -- and still win the AFC's second wild card.
And now it could continue next week at Houston, where the Bengals will face a suddenly vulnerable Texans team that has lost three straight games, none of them against postseason competition. What's more, the Texans have a possible controversy at quarterback. Rookie T.J. Yates, so impressive in emergency starts against Atlanta and (yes) Cincinnati, couldn't beat Carolina or Indianapolis, and then on Sunday he was knocked from the game with an apparent shoulder injury. Will Yates be ready for the Bengals? Or will the Texans not even worry about it and stick with veteran Jake Delhomme, whose numbers were solid in relief on Sunday?
Those are questions to be answered this week. Whatever Houston plans to do at quarterback, the Bengals will worry about that another day. They weren't in the mood Sunday to care.
"As long as you get in [the playoffs]," Clements said. "That's all that matters."