For the second straight Paul Brown Stadium game Sunday the Bengals jumped out in front with a 20-point first half and didn't offer much after intermission. But this time before 54,944 the season trend didn't hold and running back Rex Burkhead finished off the first 100-yard day of his career in his first NFL start and the defense rose up to secure a 27-10 victory over Baltimore in the regular-season finale for a 6-9-1 record.
The last time they played at PBS, the Bengals broke to a 20-9 half-time lead over the Steelers and never scored again. This time it was 20-3 and, like two weeks ago, the Bengals could get nothing going offensively in the second half with just 112 yards.
But with 4:44 left they got a lift from the defense when the Ravens went for it on fourth down from their own 25 and Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco tried to hit wide receiver Breshad Perriman on the sideline. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick knocked it down as rookie safety Clayton Fejedelem closed over the top.
From there Burkhead bolted behind fullback Ryan Hewitt for a five-yard touchdown run, his second of the day, with 2:20 left as he finished with 119 yards on 27 carries.
All the Bengals got was three punts in the third quarter, the last one coming when Ravens linebacker Elvis Dumervil beat right tackle Jake Fisher for a sack in his third NFL start.
But for the most part it was a good day for the kids.
The Ravens went after rookie linebacker Nick Vigil on a red-zone drive late in the third quarter. On third-and-six, wide receiver Steve Smith Sr., beat him on a shallow cross for a 14-yard gain and then running back Kenneth Dixon got the leverage on Vigil for an 11-yard inside run. When Smith slanted under cornerback Adam Jones for another shallow cross first down on third-and-four against the blitz, Baltimore was in the red zone on the seven-yard gain.
But Vigil had the final say. On fourth-and-two from the Bengals 8, he made a diving pass defensed against Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta on a day Pitta had a career-high 11 catches.
Smith Sr., in the game reputed to be his swan song, quietly went to the Hall of Fame with three catches for 34 yards while Flacco's miseries against the Bengals continued. His rating of 70.7 (32 of 49 for 267 yards), is sllghtly lower than his career mark against Cincinnati. He had no TDs and a pick Sunday and now has 16 TDs and 21 interceptions against the Bengals and fell to 8-9 against them.
The Ravens didn't get their first touchdown until 8:37 left in the game and it was set up on the big play the Bengals had shut down all day. This time Flacco went horizontal and not vertical to get it when he flipped a three-yard pass to Perriman dashing across the middle and Perriman scalded linebacker Karlos Dansby for a 39-yard play he took down the sideline. Dixon then bucked over from the 1 early in the fourth quarter to make it 20-10.
With the Bengals riding the first NFL starts of Burkhead and left guard T.J. Johnson along with tight end C.J. Uzomah's first NFL touchdown catch and a 121-yard effort by the rookie wide receiver tandem of Tyler Boyd and Cody Core, they jumped on Baltimore's fifth-ranked defense for that 20-3 half-time lead.
The Raven' best drive of the half got jump-started when Bengals safety Shawn Williams was called for unnecessary roughness when he hit Smith Sr., as Smith tried to make a catch on a ball thrown out-of-bounds. But moments later Flacco never saw Williams in the middle of the end zone for a red-zone pick with 2:23 left in the half.
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, sifting 14 of his 17 passes in the half for 181 yards and a 130.6 passer rating, then launched the Bengals on a 74-yard drive. Boyd and left tackle Andrew Whitworth made rocking blocks on a 19-yard screen pass to Core. Core later shook loose for 31 yards down the middle against old friend Chris Lewis-Harris as Core finished the half and the game with a career-high 82 yards on four catches.
With 30 seconds left, Dalton found Boyd on the sideline for a 13-yard gain and 39 yards for the half, but Boyd failed to step out of bounds and with seven seconds left head coach Marvin Lewis opted to take Randy Bullock's 24-yard field goal.
Dalton hit 10 of his first 12 passes for 106 yards, Burkhead churned for 54 yards on 11 carries in the half, and the Bengals cashed their first two red-zone tries for touchdowns and then had to settle for Bullock's 23-yard field goal on the third drive of the game.
Dalton hit all six of his passes for 106 yards in the first quarter as the Bengals went up 14-3 on the last play of the quarter. He would finish with a 101.2 rating when he hit 18 of 28 passes for 226 yards and finished what Lewis called the best season of his career.
After Boyd racked up 15 yards on a reverse, he caught a beautifully thrown ball down the seam for 26 more to set up two bullish red-zone runs by Burkhead, the last one a nice six-yard finish behind Whitworth and Johnson.
After wide receiver Brandon LaFell was interfered with in the end zone by cornerback Lardarius Webb, Dalton lined up behind a jumbo package featuring extra tackles Trey Hopkins and Eric Winston and he rolled out after a play-action fake and found Uzomah all by himself for a one-yard score that gave the Bengals a 14-3 lead on the last play of the first quarter.
Handed his first NFL start in his 42nd game, Burkhead gave the Bengals a 7-0 lead just 4:33 into the game when he kept his balance on stumbling-but-no-bumbling five-yard touchdown run.
Burkhead, heading into free agency with 4.5 yards per bolt in the five previous games, highlighted the drive with a 17-yard run burst out of the middle as he followed the pulling Johnson. It was a nice opening effort against a Ravens defense ranked second in the NFL against the run when they went into the locker room with 78 yards on 5.2 yards per pop and with Jeremy Hill (knee) missing the first game of his career Burkhead gave the Bengals plenty to mull as the offseason dawned.
They finished with 153 yards rushing, their best against a team this year not the Browns.
A three-and-out courtesy of a Geno Atkins pressure, linebacker Vincent Rey's tipped pass headed to Pitta, and a split sack for ends Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap put the Ravens through a three-and-out on the their opening drive.
Atkins, who came in leading NFL defensive tackles in sacks, jacked his total to nine on the next series when he shared a sack with tackle Pat Sims. At that point the Ravens figured they better run it and they converted a fourth-and-one (both teams were in four-down territory all day) on Dixon's 12-yard run on a student body right sweep and that was followed by running back Terrance West's 11-yard run on a draw and wide receiver Michael Campanaro's 10-yard run off a reverse.
When Dansby dropped West for a loss on third-and-one when he tried to cut back, the Ravens got a 30-yard field goal from Justin Tucker to make it 7-3 with 3:12 left in the first quarter.
Flacco finished the half with a mere 54.5 passer rating, slightly better than the 48 he compiled against the Bengals in the five previous games.
PRE-GAME SNAPS: Running back Jeremy Hill, who played through this season with a variety of nagging injuries, missed the first game of his career in Sunday's regular-season finale against the Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium.
Hill's knee injury paved the way for the NFL debut of rookie running back Tra Carson, an undrafted free agent out of Texas A&M promoted from the practice squad earlier in the week. Rex Burkhead, who is averaging 4.5 yards per carry in the five games since Giovani Bernard tore his ACL, makes his first NFL start in his 42nd game and figures to get the bulk of the runs in a rotation including Carson and Cedric Peerman.
Also look for quarterback Andy Dalton to stay in the game if it is close. No. 3 quarterback Jeff Driskel was again inactive, as was starting WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict (concussion, knee) and backup tight end Tyler Kroft (knee, ankle). Healthy scratches appeared to include defensive tackle DeShawn Williams, guard Christian Westerman, and wide receiver Jake Kumerow.
Kumerow had been promoted to the active roster for the first time in his two seasons on Wednesday. Westerman got sat down Sunday in factor of Trey Hopkins. The Bengals opted to go with seven offensive linemen instead of eight and after Hopkins was promoted from the practice squad on Saturday they opted for his guard-tackle-center flexibility.
Before Sunday, Hill had played in all 47 of his games and he ends this season with 222 carries for 839 yards and a 3.8-yard average. He had the same number of carries in 2014 as a rookie, but had 1,124 yards for 5.1 yards per carry. Last season he had 223 carries for 794 yards, giving him a yard-carry-average of 3.7 since his rookie year. In the last five games of this season 88 carries have netted 2.5 per carry.
Backup center T.J. Johnson, a seventh-round pick in 2013, drew his first NFL start when he was scheduled to start at left guard in his 32nd game.
Cincinnati Bengals host Baltimore Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium in week 17 of the regular season.