It all made perfect sense for the Bengals to ride their defense into next week's playoff game as coordinator Mike Zimmer's sixth-ranked unit pitched another masterpiece against a host of backups in a 23-17 victory over the Ravens at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium that capped Cincinnati's 7-1 run in the second half of the season.
Looking at a Wild Card rematch in Houston after the Colts beat the Texans in Indianapolis, the Bengals finished 10-6 for the second time in four years when Bengals left end Carlos Dunlap tipped a pass from Ravens backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor to himself and raced the remaining 14 yards for his second NFL touchdown with 6:06 left to give the Bengals a 23-14 lead, before 61,565.
It was all over when wide receiver Ryan Whalen covered an onside kick with 1:20 left.
Dunlap, who had Cincinnati's 50th sack of the year earlier in a game the Bengals set the team's single-season sack record, was part of a patchwork defense of first- and second-teamers that worked the second half. His touchdown gave the Bengals a third straight game with a score.
With both benches looking like a Pro Bowl, the Bengals sat quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green at halftime and subbed liberally on defense as they posted their second fourth-quarter victory of the season.
Bengals backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski launched a 44-yard bomb down the left sideline that wide receiver Brandon Tate hauled in at the Ravens 21 to set up Josh Brown's third field goal of the game, a 38-yarder that gave the Bengals a 16-14 lead with 7:16 left in the game. It also put Brown over the 1,000-point mark in his career and completed a nice circle for Gradkowski. In his first Bengals game in the 2011 opener, he rescued Dalton's debut with a 41-yard touchdown pass to Green for another fourth-quarter comeback.
Taylor, who played all but the first two series in place of Joe Flacco, gave the Ravens a 14-13 lead with 12:50 left in the game when no one went near him on a play-action bootleg that he veered wide to the left for a one-yard touchdown run. The big play in the drive was a pass interference penalty on a third-down incompletion called on backup cornerback Nate Clements covering wide receiver Jacoby Jones.
On the next series, Taylor ran the same play he ran for a touchdown, except this time he threw it to wide open wide receiver David Reed for a 23-yard gain. It set up Justin Tucker's 45-yard field-goal attempt that he hooked left.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis wanted to win Sunday, but his offense didn't get the memo against a host of backups until the final two minutes of the first half and when rookie wide receiver Marvin Jones scored his first NFL touchdown on an 11-yard throw from Dalton with 39 seconds left as Cincinnati forged a 7-7 halftime tie.
And that apparently was what Lewis wanted to see before next weekend's trip to the postseason because he started the second half with Gradkowski overseeing an offensive line with backup Anthony Collins at left tackle and a receiving corps with no Green.
But it was a struggle to get those seven points.
The Bengals wanted to sharpen the running game and downfield passing to tune up for next week's Wild Card game. But the karma got bad right away when they lost running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis for the day when he pulled his hamstring in pregame warmups. The Bengals then promptly went out and got 24 yards on the seven combined carries from Cedric Peerman and Brian Leonard in the half.
Meanwhile, Dalton didn't throw a pass to Green until a minute left in the half. But it converted a third-and-five, a 17-yarder down the middle to the Ravens 20. Then on the next play, Green made an acrobatic catch on the sidelines at the 11 to set up the next snap.
Jones caught a bullet over the middle at about the 5 in front of linebacker Paul Kruger, then spun away and went into the end zone standing up as Dalton finished the half and went into his second postseason 10-of-15 for 78 yards for an offense that converted just two of seven third downs.
Until that point the Bengals highlight of the first 30 minutes had been Huber's NFL-leading 11th punt of the season rolling inside the 5 with 3:01 left.
But it set up the score and right end Michael Johnson's second sack of the day when he flung Ravens backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor to the 1-yard line, giving the Bengals their 49th sack of the season to break the franchise record.
It also gave Johnson 11.5 sacks for the season, making him and defensive tackle Geno Atkins the first Cincinnati tandem to have double-digit sacks since outside linebacker Reggie Williams and left end Eddie Edwards did it for the 1981 AFC champs.
While Lewis started subbing liberally at halftime, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, sitting on the AFC North title, got a head start with an inactive list that sat six starters. He then sat quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice after two series.
But even without Rice, Taylor directed an 80-yard drive all on the ground to stake Baltimore to a 7-0 lead late in the first quarter.
The Bengals run defense has been so good lately that in the previous five games it allowed just an average of 66 yards per game. But working against the No. 1 Bengals defense, the Ravens surpassed that on their third drive of the game, when Taylor scrambled for 28 yards and made an option pitch to running back Anthony Allen on the right edge for 20 more. Allen scored on the next play, a two-yard touchdown run that made it 7-0 with 17 seconds left in the first quarter.
The Bengals had allowed just one run of 20 yards or more since Nov. 11 before that drive. On Taylor's 28-yard scramble, middle linebacker Rey Maualuga pulled up when it appeared Taylor was going to step out of bounds and cut back and got about an extra 15 yards.
The Bengals lost safety Chris Crocker on the play when he took a shot on his thigh from the helmet and was helped off the field, where he would stay for the rest of the game.
That was all the Ravens got in the half, though, despite Pierce's 66 yards on 13 carries, because the Bengals stood tall on third down, holding the Ravens to 1-for-8. Rookie WILL backer Vontaze Burfict had a field day with 13 tackles in the half alone, securing his team-tackling title.
PREGAME NOTES: Except for questionable starting cornerback Terence Newman, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis's inactive list looked like all his others and was yet another indication that he at least started out trying to win Sunday's regular-season finale at Paul Brown Stadium against the Ravens.
Newman, limited all week with a groin injury, was the only starter inactive as the 9-6 Bengals went into the game knowing they had no chance of improving their No. 6 seed in the playoffs that start next week with Wild Card Weekend.
The first clue was that Lewis put down both rookie tackles, Devon Still and Brandon Thompson, meaning he's going to use the same seven-man rotation on the defensive line that fueled this 6-1 run and stalked the club's single-season sack record with two more for 49.
Also inactive was newly-signed wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher and frequent inactives cornerback Jason Allen, safety George Iloka, and tight end Richard Quinn. Nate Clemens, who hasn't started since he worked at strong safety against the Chiefs on Nov. 18, got the start in place of Newman for his first start at corner since the second week against Cleveland.
A sign that the Bengals wanted to run the ball, protect quarterback Andy Dalton, shrink the clock, and get the running game back on track for the playoffs surfaced when the Bengals put up four running backs for the first time since Bernard Scott got hurt Oct. 7. Rookie Daniel Herron joined BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Brian Leonard and Cedric Peerman.
The 10-5 Ravens, already the AFC North champs, looked like they weren't going to as all out when they deactivated a host of Pro Bowlers, such as outside linebakcer Terrell Suggs, right guard Marshal Yanda, wide receiver Anquan Boldin, and nose tackle Haloti Ngata. It's also expected that running back Ray Rice and quarterback Joe Flacco won't play all that much.
Lewis had the defense introduced before the sellout crowd in their black jerseys and white pants. His game captains were quarterback Andy Dalton, middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, right end Michael Johnson and safety Jeromy Miles.