BALTIMORE - The relentless Bengals pass rush, anchored by rookie right Carlos Dunlap's 1.5 sacks, gave the Bengals one last shot to win Sunday's game against a Ravens playoff team keeping in all its regulars as Carson Palmer (32-of-45 for 305 yards) drove the Bengals to the Baltimore 32 at the two-minute warning, trailing 13-7.
But Palmer fumbled it away on a scramble at the Cincinnati 29 on the first play after the two-minute warning.
The Bengals defense then forced a Ravens punt with 55 seconds remaining. After a 51-yard punt, Quan Cosby returned it 15 yards to the Cincinnati 31 with 45 seconds on the clock. On the first play Palmer hit a streaking Andre Caldwell down the sideline for 39 yards to the Baltimore 30. On the next play Palmer found wide receiver Jerome Simpson open for 19 yards to the Baltimore 11. With the Bengals out of timeouts, Simpson was able to get out of bounds to stop the clock.
Palmer then found Caldwell open over the middle for none yards to the Baltimore 2. The Bengals had no option but to spike the ball to stop the clock with 19 seconds left. On third down Palmer tried to hit Caldwell on an end zone fade but the pass was incomplete, bringing up a fourth-and-two play. Palmer scrambled out of the pocket and tried to hit an open Cedric Peerman in the flat at the two-yard line, but the pass was badly overthrown and the Bengals fell to a 13-7 defeat.
The Bengals finish the season with a 4-12 mark.
With 5:32 left in the game on fourth-and-one from the Ravens 26, the Bengals tried to a funky formation in which the Bengals split kicker Clint Stitser wide and backup Jordan Palmer at quarterback, but Baltimore called timeout.
The Bengals, stopped four times on third-and-one, then put the regulars back in, but opted to give the ball to Peerman for just his second carry of the season and not Cedric Benson or Bernard Scott. They went left, but safety Dawan Landry and WILL linebacker Jameel McClain combined to make the stop.
Earler in the period, bouncing back from his second fumble of the game, Simpson caught an 11-yard touchdown pass to cut the Ravens lead to 13-7 with 12:21 left.
It snapped the Bengals' skein of 10 straight quarters against Baltimore without a touchdown.
In a series almost always decided by turnovers, the Bengals and Ravens played with fire in the first half and then the Bengals got torched in third quarter when Simpson's second fumble of the game and fourth turnover of the day for running back Ray Rice's 10-yard touchdown run that gave Baltimore a 13-0 lead.
As Rice ran past middle linebacker Dhani Jones with 5:47 left in the third quarter, the Steelers were blowing out Cleveland to keep the AFC North title from the Ravens as the Bengals were headed to 4-12 and last place in the AFC North.
Speculation also swirled about Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis' job status even as his team closed with another potential memorable fourth quarter season. The latest scuttlebutt from media outlets and other sources is that while people surmise Bengals president Mike Brown is thinking about asking him back, Lewis is going to stand his ground on non-salary issues.
But no one really knows until Monday.
Simpson, who had 123 yards on 12 catches, including the touchdown for a career high, caught a short pass at the line and when he tried to get out of cornerback Chris Carr's leg tackle, the ball flew out of his arm and the Ravens recovered at the Bengals 28.
The Bengals took a big hit in the turnover game when Ravens safety Ed Reed picked off Palmer in the end zone with 15 seconds left to preserve their 6-0 lead.
It was Reed's second interception of the game, the sixth in his career against Palmer and spoiled safety Reggie Nelson's 56-yard interception return with 40 seconds left that put the ball on the Ravens 37.
Palmer got a first down to Simpson working the sticks on the left side and then Simpson went to the other sideline to make a spectacular leaping 11-yard catch that he pulled away from cornerback Fabian Washington.
But with unblocked outside linebacker Jarret Johnson bearing down on him, Palmer threw high and behind wide receiver Jordan Shipley and when Shipley tipped it at about the 3, Reed plucked it off the turf in the end zone.
Nelson had quite the active first half. He caused one fumble and helped forced Billy Cundiff's 47-yard field goal with 4:41 left that made it 6-0 when he made a second-down deflection from behind wide receiver Anquan Boldin at about the Cincinnati 10.
In getting blanked in the half, the Bengals blew a short field goal try and two third-and-one situations. On the first third-and-one, running back Cedric Benson and fullback Chris Pressley lined up next to each other and Benson got drilled by the middle of the line. On the next one, Pressley lined up in front of Benson and got his first Bengals carry and it appeared that Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs knifed inside left tackle Andrew Whitworth to make the stop and force the punt.
Simpson followed up his 124-yard day with seven catches for 72 yards in the first half. Palmer was 17-of-24 for 139 yards, but his two interceptions dragged his passer rating to 50.5. It was tough going on the ground, where Benson had nine of the 12 carries for 21 of the 25 yards in the half.
But the defense again had another bend-but-don't break half. Flacco went 11-of-15 in the half for 13 yards, but the Bengals sacked him twice and held Rice to 32 yards on eight carries.
The teams ended up merely trading fumbles by Simpson and Ravens wide receiver Donte Stallworth. After Palmer hit Simpson on a slant, Simpson broke into the clear in the middle of the field, but Carr pulled the ball out from behind and Ray Lewis fell on it at the Ravens 37.
But on the next snap, at the end of a 15-yard reverse, Stallworth coughed it up when Nelson punched the ball out and Dunlap came up with his first career fumble recovery at the Bengals 36. Later in the half Dunlap tied the club rookie sack record when he shared a sack with rookie tackle Geno Atkins. With a fourth-quarter sack of Flacco, Dunlap set the Bengals rookie single-season sack record with 9.5, breaking the mark previously held by defensive end Justin Smith.
The Bengals fell behind, 3-0, in the game's first five minutes because they broke the cardinal rule against the Ravens and turned it over on their first series on their first third down. Facing a third-and-two from their own 28, Palmer had four wide receivers and sent Caldwell long down the left sideline. He had cornerback Lardarius Webb beat by a step, but he underthrew it and Webb was able to tip it into the air. Reed came up with his fifth career pick coming from behind of the tip to set up the Ravens at their own 40.
After safety Roy Williams missed Rice at the line on an eight-yard run, the Ravens burned the Bengals on razzle-dazzle with running back Willis McGahee pitched back a handoff and Flacco flipped a pass over the rush to wide-open tight end Todd Heap in the middle of the field.
But as they have for the last three weeks, the Bengals came up with another red-zone stand. Will linebacker Keith Rivers dumped Rice for a yard loss and Atkins flushed Flacco out of the pocket to set up Cundiff's 23-yard field goal for the 3-0 lead.
Bengals rookie Clint Stitser couldn't match the chippy when he missed his first NFL field goal on his eighth try and couldn't tie the game with 12:43 left in the first half as he sent a 29-yarder wide right.
That came at the end of a drive Palmer completed four straight third-down passes to different receivers. Simpson held on to a 13-yard pop over the middle on third-and-one and dragged Webb. Caldwell caught an eight-yarder on the sideline in front of Carr on third-and-five. Peerman caught his first pass of the season when he absorbed a big hit over the middle for 11 yards on third-and-five. And tight end Chase Coffman, who earlier caught his first NFL ball, settled in the zone over the middle on third-and-10 for an 11-yard catch.
That got the Bengals into the red zone, but an unblocked Ray Lewis blew up Benson behind the line for a three-yard loss on first down from the 14 eventually led to Stitser's miss.
PREGAME NOTES: Jermaine Gresham's club-breaking season came to an end before Sunday's season finale here at M&T Bank Stadium when he was inactive for the first time this season with a knee injury. The record for catches by a rookie tight end is now 52 as he finished with 471 yards and four touchdowns.
Cornerback Johnathan Joseph (ankle), who didn't practice all week, is going to try and go after his pregame workout on a wet field under partly cloudy skies and a temperature of about 50 degrees. With Gresham out, Chase Coffman was listed for his first NFL start in his sixth game.
As expected, everybody else on the inactive list except wide receiver Chad Ochocinco and rookie center Reggie Stephens, was a relative newcomer to the roster. Stephens, inactive for every game, joined offensive lineman Kirk Chambers, wide receiver Shay Hodge, tight end Garrett Mills, and defensive end Victor Adeyanju.
The Bengals got a break when the Ravens put down David Reed, the NFL's kickoff return leader. Among those down for the Ravens were backup linebacker Tavares Gooden, backup safety Tom Zbikowski, and backup tight end Dennis Pitta.
All Bengals-Ravens games seem to pivot on special teams and the Ravens have the decided edge with Pro Bowl kicker Billy Cundiff against Bengals rookie Clint Stitser. With Stitser struggling with his kickoffs after four NFL games, Cundiff has an NFL-record 32 outdoor touchbacks this season. And Ravens punter Sam Koch is one shy of the NFL lead with 37 kicks inside the 20. The Bengals' Kevin Huber is tied for 10th in the NFL with a plus-21 touchback-to-inside-the-20 ratio.
The answers that didn't exist before kickoff should be coming fast and furious.
No one knows if Ravens head coach John Harbaugh is going to play his starters all the way because the Steelers didn't kick off in Cleveland on Sunday until the Bengals and Ravens kicked off.
No one knows where the Bengals are drafting. Not with nine teams at 4-11 and 5-10. If they lose it will be anywhere between Nos. 2 and 4. A Bengals win and Browns loss puts Cincinnati in third place in the AFC North.
And no one knows how the Marvin Lewis scenario is going to play out. Except maybe Lewis and Bengals president Mike Brown, but Lewis has said they haven't discussed unspecified future issues.
It won't happen until Monday and it could be quick if Lewis and Brown agree not to agree. If it goes beyond Monday, that could indicate Brown and Lewis have found some footing and are in negotiations to extend his deal that is set to expire.
Hovering over the cloudy coaching situation is the suspended animation of the collective bargaining agreement. Given that Brown made defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer the highest paid assistant in Bengals history last year, Zimmer would appear to be the first option if Lewis doesn't return. Lewis' hire reversed a franchise trend of going with offense at the top. Lewis was the club's first defensive head coach who wasn't first an interim coach.
For his 130th game as head coach, Lewis kept to his routine on the road and announced the starters as a group. They appeared in white jerseys and black pants, an ensemble that came into the game with an 11-17 record. He sent his game captains to midfield, where they met former Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzdeh with hugs. Middle linebacker Dhani Jones called "heads," the Ravens won the toss and chose to defer, giving the Bengals the ball.