There were 53 minutes left to play in Sunday's season finale at Paul Brown Stadium, but when Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins grabbed his tender hamstring at the end of what should have been his 41-yard-run-and-record catch as a flag flew in the air. That play pretty much dictated the rest of a game the Ravens led, 3-0, and ended up winning, 38-3.
What had been a huge third-down conversion on the Bengals' first series of the game had been wiped away on wide receiver Mike Thomas' illegal block he didn't have to make. It was now third-and-18, right where Baltimore defensive coordinator Wink Martindale lives.
Punt. The Ravens, on a five-game winning streak, have been doing that to everybody. They're second in the league preventing third-down conversions. And by the time they got the ball back they were losing, 10-0, not yet a dozen minutes into the game. That's a two-score lead the Ravens' NFL-best running attack almost never squanders and with Higgins out for the game. That was one less weapon the Ravens' pressure package had to worry about, especially on third down, where the Bengals were 1-for-9.
"It was tough. That's really what they've done, especially those last couple weeks — they build those 17-0 or 27-0 deficits on other teams," said Bengals head coach Zac Taylor. "Their defense is as deep as any there is. They're really 12-deep up front. I know they only had nine (players) active today, but they can keep bringing that pressure from all areas. When they get a lead, they're tough to come back against."
It was one of the costliest injuries and penalties in Bengals history since the price was the Bengals' 39-year-old rookie receiving record of Cris Collinsworth that Higgins tied last week. Now they remain tied in history.
"It kind of snowballed from there. You know, anytime you get a big play like that and that one got called back and you lose Tee for the rest of the game (to injury) ... it definitely took some wind out of our sails," said quarterback Brandon Allen. "But you know, as a good offense, you have to be able to come back from that and execute — it's a 'next guy up' mentality. Anytime there's a really good player like Tee lost for the game, it's tough. Guys I thought really have been stepping up all year, and they continue to do that, but we just weren't able to get it done."
KIDS KEEP IT GOING: Second-year running back Trayveon Williams had the team's longest run of the year with a 55-yarder on an outside zone he broke with the help of nice blocks by left tackle Fred Johnson, left guard Xavier Su'a-Filo and safety DeShon Elliott's missed tackle. Williams did the rest with a big-league cut back.
That left Williams with a nice season stat line of 26 carries for 157 yards after not getting any runs last season as a rookie.
Margus Hunt isn't a kid, but the 2013 Bengals draft pick helped a 2020 pick get his first interception. With Baltimore leading, 10-0, Hunt batted Jackson's two passes in a series with the second one turning into rookie linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither's diving pick …
Fred Johnson, the second-year left tackle, looked like he had a pretty good day as the Bengals offensive line had a better effort than it did two months ago in Baltimore, when quarterback Joe Burrow got sacked seven times and hit 15. Allen didn't get sacked and was hit twice, but he couldn't find many windows through which to throw. The Bengals had another decent day finding running room. There was Williams' one run, but running back Samaje Perine also averaged 5.7 yards on his nine carries.
GREEN STOPPED: The season finale was supposed to be a day of records. There was Higgins and there was franchise great A.J. Green, maybe playing his last game in PBS as a Bengal, one catch away from Chad Johnson's club record of 66 touchdown catches.
But instead, for the fifth time this year he didn't have a catch despite six targets.
They tried, though. With 2:44 left in the third quarter and the Bengals trailing, 31-3, Green drew two straight pass interference penalties. The last one, with the Bengals at the Ravens 4, was called on a heated Marcus Peters when the Ravens cornerback was called for mauling Green across the middle.
On the next play from the 1, Allen went play-action, rolled slightly to his right and tried to throw it back the other way and he had Green open heading to the back pylon as he cleanly beat Peters off the line. But it was underthrown and Peters got his revenge when he threw out an arm to corral it and brought it in for the pick.
"It wasn't really talked about, but it's something that I think everyone knows (about)," Allen said of trying to get Green part of the record. "Obviously you love a player like A.J., and the things he's done for this organization, and you want to see him get that record. It just didn't happen."
Allen's two interceptions came throwing to Green after a first half he didn't target him.
"We have had those plays for a few games now and we hadn't been able to dial them up yet. We got we got the right looks for them (today) and got pass interference a couple times," Allen said. "Then (I) did not get the ball out far enough on the one. (I was) definitely looking A.J.'s way, trying to get (him) a touchdown, and I wasn't able to get it to him."
Later Allen went deep for him down the right sideline, but safety Chuck Clark was leaning that way and made sure he helped the corner as Allen overthrew him.
"We had him on another double move, trying to get him the ball," Allen said. "Give that (defensive) guy a lot of credit, (because) he came from the middle of the field. Flew across field. And that was a hell of a play on his part. But again, it came down to me not putting the ball where it needed to be."
RECORD BOOK FLIPPED: Instead of Green and Higgins getting the records, the Bengals ended up with numbers they'd rather not enshrine. The Ravens' 404 rushing yards were the second most allowed in the 50 years since the merger and were three yards shy of the Bengals' own 407 set in this building on Oct. 22, 2000 when Bengals running back Corey Dillon broke Walter Payton's single-game rushing record with 278.
If it wasn't Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson scrambling for 18 or holding on to a zone read for 20 or dishing it to rookie running back J.K. Dobbins for 27 instead of keeping it, it was Dobbins ripping off a 72-yarder for Baltimore's last touchdown on a gash job up the middle. Jackson's 97 yards left him three yards shy of his third 100-yard rush game against the Bengals in five starts.
Taylor didn't question the effort and pointed out that his top three defensive tackles and top three cornerbacks weren't available.
"It was a challenge. We were missing a fair amount of guys," Taylor said. "That's no fun. I don't question the effort. I haven't seen the tape yet obviously, but there wasn't anything that stood out from that standpoint. We ran into a really good football team that can run it as well any team in the league. They had enough long runs there that really broke our backs in some situations. We do expect to be better, but it was a tough matchup right now.
"We were down several (defensive) tackles, several corners. It was a challenge."
MUM ON COACHES: Multiple reports have the Bengals changing out as many as five assistant coaches, but Taylor said he wouldn't talk about that Sunday. He's scheduled to talk to the media early Monday afternoon.
The players made available on Zoom didn't think the pre-game reports on Saturday and Sunday were a factor in the outcome.
"I wouldn't say it affects anyone," said free safety Jessie Bates III. "I just think it's very awkward, honestly. You try to avoid those conversations and stuff like that and just focus on the main goal at task."
ALLEN's UP AND DOWNS: Allen went from one of the most efficient passing days ever by a Bengal to one of the tougher passing days of the century. After last Sunday's 371-yard, 78-percent performance netted him the FedEx Air Player of the Week, he ended up this Sunday with a 0 passer rating on 6 of 21 passing for 48 yards.
The Bengals didn't pass for any yards in the 2009 finale, when they sat their starters in the second half to get ready for the Wild Card Game. They had just 14 that day Dillon set the record. It doesn't happen very often.
The Ravens did a great job on Green and Tyler Boyd, combining for one catch and a yard on nine targets. Allen tipped his hat to Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale's blitz packages after a season they held Allen and rookie quarterback Joe Burrow to two field goals, 4-25 on third down and a total of 400 yards in the two games.
"I just think they're so talented at every position. And then, like I said, they do a good job of playing man coverage and being all over guys," Allen said. "They were disguising a few things and making it hard (to read their coverages), throwing a lot of different looks. They're good about going into each game, knowing their own 'tells' and using that against an offense. I thought they did a good job that today, and we just have to be better offensively, obviously. You (have to) give them a lot of credit for how they played and the kind of defense they are."
With Higgins out, it tightened up the Ravens even more.
"They doubled (Boyd) a little bit when (Higgins) first went out and made that difficult," Allen said. "(Martindale) had a couple blitz packages that we hadn't seen that were tough on us. And besides that, there was tight coverage across the board. That's just this league. It's going to be tight-window throws and contested catches. I can definitely help our receivers out by making better throws to get them open. It's just how this league is — tough — and I'll definitely learn from this game and get better."