Ravens Three-and-Out: Week 17. vs. Cincinnati Bengals
Still reeling from a heartbreaking loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 16, the Baltimore Ravens seemed emotionally unprepared for their final game of 2016. The 6-9-1 Cincinnati Bengals were clearly the inferior team to the Ravens in 2016, yet for one game they were able to dominate their division rivals. The Bengals cruised to an easy 27-10 victory that gives them a streak of five consecutive seasons where they have avoided being swept by the Ravens.
The Ravens will now close 2016 with an 8-8 record, making it the third time in the last four seasons that they have finished with a record of .500 or worse. Prior to this loss to the Bengals, the Ravens had just one loss that was by 10 points or more. That was a 27-17 loss to the NFC's top-seeded Dallas Cowboys back in Week 11. Every other loss came in a one-score game so it is very demoralizing for the Ravens to go in and suffer their biggest loss to a losing team that has a strong argument for being 2016's biggest disappointment.
The game was an ugly one from the start. Andy Dalton and the Bengals' offense came out hot, scoring touchdowns on their first two possessions. The first touchdown was a 5-yard run by backup running back Rex Burkhead, who went on to have a career day with 119 yards and two touchdowns on 27 attempts. The second touchdown was a 1-yard touchdown reception by backup tight end C.J. Uzomah.
Sandwiched between the two early Bengals touchdown drives was a 13-play Ravens drive that resulted in a 30-yard field goal by Justin Tucker. It was the same story for this unimpressive Ravens offense as it was for much of the 2016 season; the offense had to keep settling for field goals. Tucker only had one for the season finale, but it clearly hurt the Ravens that they couldn't keep pace with the Bengals' offense early.
The Ravens' defense did tighten things up late, allowing only one touchdown in the game's final three quarters. That was a 5-yard run by Burkhead which brought the Bengals' lead to 17 points with just two minutes remaining. The Ravens' offense remains anything but quick strike and so it was not too surprising to see backup quarterback Ryan Mallet throw an interception to end his only offensive drive. The interception basically clinched the victory for the Bengals who ran one play and then knelt twice to end the game.
Now obviously this game was meaningless for any playoff aspirations as the Ravens saw those dreams dashed in Week 16. Still, many NFL teams tout the benefits of closing out strong and building that positive momentum to build onto for next season. So to come out flat and get dominated like this, has got to hurt the Ravens' morale to at least a small extent. With the season now over, here is a look at some of the notable observations from the Ravens' final game of 2016.
1. Steve Smith Sr. fizzles in final game of career, raising major questions about the future of the Ravens' passing game.
In a game that was lacking for storylines, one of the only ones being talked about before the game was the fact that this could be the final game of Steve Smith Sr.'s career. It was clear that many players on the team were hoping to send Smith out on a high note, hopefully by getting him a win and seeing him record one last monster statline.
That hope did not come to pass as Smith was basically an afterthought on a day where the Ravens' passing game couldn't get much going. Smith ended the day with just three catches for 34 yards, with his longest catch going for 14 yards. The likely final reception of his career came on a 7-yard reception that converted a third down late in the third quarter.
It wasn't necessarily Smith's fault that he had a bad day. Flacco had an average day passing, going 32-of-49 for 267 yards and one interception, while Mallet completed only one of his two passes. Dennis Pitta was again Flacco's top target, as he set a franchise-record for most receptions by a tight end with 11 catches for 49 yards on his 16 targets. Smith for whatever reason, only finished with five targets.
With the 11 catches, Pitta finished the season with a team-leading 75, an impressive accomplishment for a player trying to come back from two serious hip injuries. His 75 receptions also edged out Todd Heap to set a new franchise record for most receptions by a tight end in a season. Smith however, led the team in receiving touchdowns with five and Mike Wallace finished with the most receiving yards for the Ravens at 984, narrowly missing out on his first 1,000 yard receiving season since 2011.
Those three players were clearly Flacco's top targets and now that Smith has confirmed that he is retiring, it seems likely there could be a changing of the guard next season. Pitta could also retire or he could be overtaken by younger tight ends Crockett Gillmore and Maxx Williams, both of whom lost most of 2016 to injuries. This leaves Wallace as the favorite to lead the Ravens in most receiving categories in 2017 and it also puts pressure on 2015 first rounder Breshad Perriman to prove that he can justify his high draft position and become a consistent starter. Perriman actually had one of his best games in 2016, finishing with four catches for 62 yards, including a 39-yard reception that set up the only Ravens' touchdown of the game.
2. Emotional letdown lead to question just how much the Ravens prepared for game with zero playoff implications.
The Ravens spent all week leading up to the game talking about how this game mattered to them and that they would not try to purposely lose. Instead, they struggled from the start and allowed a Bengals team with a losing record to dominate them. Burkhead topped 100 rushing yards against the Ravens, despite being a career backup. The Bengals still scored 27 points even with A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert and Jeremy Hill missing the game due to injury.
Other than Kenneth Dixon's 1-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, the Ravens struggled mightily on offense. Flacco threw one interception, bringing his 2016 total to 14. His interception was an extremely costly play that came on a first-and-goal where he was trying to get the ball to Pitta. The play turned out to be a 10-point swing as the Bengals would drive down the field and kick a field goal, extending their lead to 20-3 going into halftime.
The Ravens had another redzone drive come up short, when they turned the ball over on downs from the Bengals' eight-yard line. Failing to score on this third quarter drive hurt the team massively as they had to enter the fourth quarter down 17 points. The Dixon touchdown run helped, but it came with 8:37 left in the game and there really wasn't enough time left for the offense to put up 10 more points.
This loss dropped the Ravens' road record to 2-6. The only two road wins they secured this season were against the Cleveland Browns and the Jacksonville Jaguars. Those were also the two worst teams in the AFC this season and both of those road wins came in September. John Harbaugh simply has not done a good job preparing his team for road games and with their biggest loss of the season occurring in Cincinnati, it definitely raises concern about whether or not this team is doing enough to prepare for road games.
3. C.J. Mosely is carted off field as defense closes out season wrecked with injuries.
For most of the year, 2016 was a better year for the Ravens when it came to injuries. They didn't have to put 20 players on Injured Reserve (IR) like they did last season. Several starters missed multiple games, but prior to Week 17, tight end Benjamin Watson was the only projected starter to go on IR.
That changed a few days ago when Jimmy Smith got placed on IR. Smith had initially been hurt during the loss to the New England Patriots in Week 14 and his absence really hurt the team in last week's loss to the Steelers. Also joining Smith on IR was standout inside linebacker Zachary Orr, who suffered a neck injury against the Steelers. Despite missing this game, Orr would still finish as the Ravens' leading tackler with 132 tackles on the season.
The Ravens were unable to emerge unscathed in Week 17. C.J. Mosley suffered what he believed to be a calf strain late in the game. The scene was a little scary when he was carted off the field, especially since this game was one where Mosley had nothing to play for. He was walking around afterwards in a protective boot so it seems that the injury will not be as bad as it initially looked.
Nevertheless, Orr, Smith and Mosley will all be facing offseasons where they have to rehab from injuries suffered late in the season. You can add Elvis Dumervil to that list, as he recently revealed that he had Achilles surgery in the 2016 offseason. Dumervil was not his usual self in 2016, as he managed just two sacks in eight games played. It's not all that far-fetched to consider that Dumervil could be a salary cap casualty for the Ravens next season, as that would save them $6 million.
In the case of the Ravens, they were what their record said they were. An 8-8 team that showed flashes of greatness, but also failed to come through in chances where they were given opportunities. They were 2-5 against 2016 playoff teams, with only their loss to the Cowboys coming by more than one touchdown. This means that four of their losses to playoff teams were agonizingly close games and whether it was the defense giving up the late score or the offense failing to drive down the field, the Ravens just couldn't hang with the elite NFL teams of 2016.
Their leader in touchdown receptions is now retired and it's not unreasonable to think that their leader in receptions either joins him in retirement, or is shuffled down the depth chart next season. Former defensive stars Dumervil and Suggs are circling the ends of their respective careers, while right guard Marshal Yanda could also be coming up on the end of his likely Hall of Fame career. Six key Ravens will be free agents in 2017, with Brandon Williams looking like he will become one of the highest-paid defensive linemen this offseason.
The Ravens will look to rebound next season and end a stretch where they've missed the playoffs three times in the last four seasons. Harbaugh is safe this offseason, but it is not difficult to think that a third consecutive season missing the playoffs could lead to his seat getting hot. Offensive coordinator Marty Morhinweg is unlikely to be retained and it seems that there should be a lot of changes made that could be outlined when owner Steve Biscotti gives his State of the Ravens speech. This offseason will look to be one of change as general manager Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens' front office will attempt to construct a team that can return to being a playoff contender.
James Reagan writes for the Baltimore Ravens on Pro Football Spot and can be followed on Twitter @james__reagan.