No third-down conversions, no problem for the Bengals, who rallied to beat Baltimore, 24-16 Sunday afternoon amid some statistical oddities in the regular-season finale at Paul Brown Stadium.
Cincinnati (12-4) remained in contention for a playoff bye after failing to convert a third-down play Sunday. The Bengals went 0-for-9, while the Ravens (5-11) converted 12 of 20 on third down. According to STATS, it's the first time in 20 years the Bengals won a game without converting on third down.
The Bengals also overcame a season-high 11 penalties totaling 72 yards, compared to four penalties for Baltimore. The Bengals were on the short end of the first-down count (22-17) and trailed in total yards (341-292). Yet they managed to match the franchise high for wins, equaling 12-win totals from the 1981 and 1988 seasons. On both previous occasions, the Bengals reached the Super Bowl.
It's the Bengals' best finish under coach Marvin Lewis, whose squad led the AFC and was second in the NFL in scoring defense with a yield of 279 points, a franchise low. Seattle led the league, giving up 277 points.
That's the goal this season, even though the AFC North Division champions missed an opportunity to clinch the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye when they fell 20-17 Monday in Denver. The No. 2 seed remained in play after the Bengals ended the season for the banged-up Ravens, who wrapped up things with 20 players on injured reserve, the second-most in the NFL.
(Denver clinched the AFC No. 1 seed with a 27-20 win later in the day against San Diego. New England is the No. 2 seed. Cincinnati is No. 3. All three division champions finished 12-4, but the AFC West champion Broncos win the tiebreaker over the Patriots and Bengals based on head-to-head sweeps.)
The Bengals' home faithful was underwhelmed with Sunday prospects. Just 57,254 fans, the Bengals' smallest crowd of the season, showed up on a mild January day in Cincinnati. There were plenty of empty seats at the end as fans began filing out in the fourth quarter. They are hoping the Bengals can win when it counts, in the playoff opener. It's going to be a rematch with the Steelers at 8:15 p.m. in a Saturday Wild Card game at PBS.
Backup quarterback AJ McCarron made his third career start, his first at PBS, while playing in place of injured starter Andy Dalton (broken thumb). McCarron ended Monday's loss when he fumbled the final snap, leading to a Denver recovery. On Sunday, he overcame a shaky start against Baltimore to lead the Bengals on four scoring drives.
Two ended in McCarron touchdown passes, one in the second quarter to returning tight end Tyler Eifert for 22 yards. It was Eifert's first action following a two-game absence due to a concussion. The other came in the third quarter on a five-yard TD pass to wide receiver A.J. Green. With McCarron misfiring early, the Bengals punted on four straight possessions before finally getting things in gear.
Six days after straining the wrist on his non-throwing left hand on Monday's final play, McCarron finished 17-of-27 passing for 160 yards and the two scores. He was sacked three times. Eifert had four receptions for 52 yards and his 13th touchdown of the season. Green had four catches for 34 yards.
Eifert's score and Mike Nugent's extra-point kick gave the Bengals a 7-6 lead. Justin Tucker, who gave the Ravens an early 6-0 lead on pair of first-quarter field goals, booted his third through the uprights with no time remaining in the second quarter for a 9-7 Baltimore advantage.
Green's score and Nugent's kick gave Cincinnati the lead for good at 14-9. Running back Jeremy Hill's 38-yard touchdown run less than five minutes later, his 11th TD of the season, helped extend the advantage to 21-9. On fourth-and-one, it was the Bengals' highlight play of the day.
Hill carried 16 times for 96 yards, his second-best rushing effort during an otherwise disappointing second season. He finished four yards short of his first 100-yard game. He had four rushing games of at least 140 yards last season. Thanks to the 38-yard ramble, his longest of the year, Hill averaged a robust 6.0 yards per carry against the Ravens.
Nugent's 52-yard field goal made it 24-9 with 4:06 to play. Ravens fullback Kyle Juszczyk's two-yard TD pass from Ryan Mallett, capping an eight-play, 75-yard drive, and Tucker's kick set the final score.
Down to Mallett after losing starter Joe Flacco earlier in the year, the stubborn Ravens were in it until the Bengals recovered an onside kick in the final minutes. Mallett, making his second start, finished 30-of-56 passing for 292 yards. He threw two interceptions, one each to linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maulauga, who sealed it on a pick at the Ravens' 29 yard line with 24 seconds to play on second-and-10 at the Baltimore 9. Maualuga returned it to the Ravens' 14. The offense came in for the final play, and assumed the victory formation before a McCarron kneel.
Burfict and safety Reggie Nelson led the Bengals with 12 tackles each. Nelson nearly came up with his ninth interception of the season, but bobbled it and watched the football fall to the turf. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins picked up his 11th sack.
The Bengals held Ravens running back Javorius Allen to 38 yards on 15 carries. Kamar Aiken was Mallett's top receiver with five catches for 76 yards. Allen and Aiken were well down the Ravens' depth chart when the season started. Kevin Huber averaged 43.3 yards per punt for the Bengals, who finished 6-2 both at home and on the road.