Created on Monday, 31 December 2012 Written by JOE KAY,AP Sports Writer
CINCINNATI (AP) — Baltimore opens the playoffs with an emotional home game. Cincinnati heads back to the place where it lost in the first round last year.
And really, that's all they really wanted to find out.
The AFC North rivals rested their stars Sunday in a finale that had a preseason taste. Carlos Dunlap's 14-yard interception return in the fourth quarter set up Cincinnati's 23-17 win. The teams had little at stake, and they played like it.
"I'm glad that's over," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "That's a difficult situation to be in. I thought our guys handled it about as well as you can handle it."
The Ravens (10-6) had already clinched their second straight division title and decided to use the final game to get healthier. They had several stars inactive and pulled quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice after only two series.
They'll host Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts next Sunday, reuniting them with former defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano. The Colts head coach has returned from three rounds of chemotherapy.
"Chuck's like a dad to me," Ravens safety Ed Reed said. "He means a lot to me. I would have much rather seen them in the AFC championship game than the first game."
The Bengals (10-6) are locked into the sixth seed as the final wild-card team. They'll open next Saturday at Houston, where they lost 31-10 in the first round of the playoffs last season.
"I think it will be good," said quarterback Andy Dalton, who grew up in suburban Houston. "We played there last year and know the atmosphere and what it's going to be like. The experience last year will definitely help us."
With hardly anything at stake, both teams went into preseason mode on a 26-degree afternoon with a wind chill of 16. The Bengals' reserves got them their seventh win in the last eight games.
Josh Brown kicked three field goals in the second half. Dunlap tipped one of Tyrod Taylor's passes to himself and returned it for a clinching touchdown with 6:06 left, jumping into the stands and sitting there for several seconds while fans smacked his back.
"I wanted it to be a highlight to remember," Dunlap said.
The Bengals are in the playoffs for the second straight season after beating rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore in back-to-back weeks — a breakthrough for a franchise that had been 0-6 against those top rivals the past two seasons.
The defense has led the way, scoring more touchdowns than the offense over the past two weeks. Cornerback Leon Hall returned an interception for the only touchdown against Pittsburgh, and Dunlap clinched the win on Sunday with his return.
Now, they get another shot at the Texans.
"There will be a lot of incentive," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "You get a chance to go wash a bad taste out of your mouth. Anytime you get a chance to do that, it's great."
The Bengals wanted to get their running game tuned up for the playoffs, but BenJarvus Green-Ellis had a hamstring tighten up during pregame warmups and was held out of the game. Lewis didn't know how it would affect him in the playoffs.
The Ravens sat some of their banged-up playmakers and pulled others from the game after only two series. Receiver Anquan Boldin, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and linebacker Terrell Suggs were inactive.
"It's an accomplishment to be in a position where you can afford to (rest stars)," coach John Harbaugh said. "If we would have been playing for more, like an opportunity to move up dramatically in seeding, then we would have played them more."
The Bengals went with a conservative approach. Dalton didn't even throw toward Green until the final drive of the first half, keeping the Pro Bowl receiver out of harm's way. Bruce Gradkowski took over in the second half for Dalton, who was 10 of 15 for 78 yards with a pair of sacks.
Brown kicked field goals of 47, 32 and 38 yards. He'll be the Bengals' kicker in the playoffs with Mike Nugent sidelined by a calf injury. Brown is 11 for 12 on field goal tries since he signed as a free agent, the only miss on a 56-yard attempt in Pittsburgh.
Taylor, who had thrown only four passes all season, replaced Flacco and led a pair of touchdown drives by running away from defenders. Anthony Allen ran 2 yards for a touchdown, and Taylor scored on a 1-yard run.
NOTES: The crowd of 61,565 gave Cincinnati six sellouts in eight home games. The Bengals sold out only two games last season on their way to the playoffs. ... Baltimore's Justin Tucker missed a 45-yard field goal try and made one from 49 yards, leaving him 30 of 33 for the season. His 90.9 percent success rate set an NFL record for a rookie. ... The Bengals had four sacks, giving them a franchise-record 51 for the season. ... S Chris Crocker hurt his right thigh while trying to make a tackle in the first quarter and didn't return. He said the injury wasn't serious.