Burfict timing: With the postseason here, Vontaze Burfict is back to 90 percent play time.
The stingiest defense in Bengals history let Ravens quarterback Ryan Mallett do everything but score Sunday in the 24-16 victory over the Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium, defining what coordinator Paul Guenther wanted from them all along.
Third down? Mallett, in his second start during his third week with the Ravens, converted 60 percent of his 20 third downs.
Passing yards? Mallet hit for 292, the second biggest day by an opposing passer at PBS all season.
Getting off the field? The Bengals had just scored to take a 7-6 lead with 1:49 left in the first half when the Ravens drove 55 yards to take a go-ahead field goal at the gun.
But damn the stats. Hasn't that what Guenther has been saying all year? If they must score, field goals, not touchdowns. The bottom line is that no one in Bengals history has done better over 16 games. 279 points. They lost the NFL scoring title to Seattle by two points, only because the Cardinals sat quarterback Carson Palmer in the second half.
"It just speaks to the guys in the locker room," said cornerback Adam Jones. "The guys upstairs bringing in everybody in here, etc., etc. It's great for the city of Cincinnati. But this time we need a play-off win. It is what it is. We need a play-off win."
The guy who summed up the mentality best is safety Reggie Nelson, who finished as the NFL's co-interceptions leader with Chiefs rookie cornerback Marcus Peters with eight. He had a ball all by his lonesome in the fourth quarter that he dropped that would have given him the title outright.
"Nah,' said Nelson when asked if he'd see the play in his sleep. "We won. It doesn't matter to me."
If the Bengals defense is more focused on the postseason than their new club points record and franchise-tying 12th victory, it has followed a pattern. When Pro Bowl WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict returned from his year-long absence from micro fracture knee surgery on Nov. 1 in Pittsburgh, the hope was he could be back full-time to his Pro Bowl form by the time the playoffs started.
With the Steelers ringing for a third time in this Saturday night's Wild Card Game (8:15-Cincinnati's Channel 12), Burfict is coming off his busiest game where he barley came off the field playing 90 percent of the snaps, hauled down a team-high 12 tackles, and turned the game around with a diving interception to start a second half the Bengals trailed, 9-7.
He started out playing about 50 percent of the snaps, but he began to jack up the snaps a few weeks ago in a gradual climb to 70-75 percent. On Sunday it was vintage Tez with 72 snaps.
"He's getting better. This week was the culmination of it,' said Vincent Rey, who started in Burfict's place for the first six games of the season. "It's great we're rolling into the playoffs with him playing this high because we all feed off it. He's good to go, his body is ready. When the leaders play well, everyone else steps their game up."
And if Burfict is anything, he is their heart and soul out there and for the second time in three weeks he jump-started a winning drive for Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton when he needed it in a grind job.
In San Francisco, Burfict made a diving catch of a tipped ball in the last minute of the first half in a 14-0 game at the Niners 20 to set up a TD on the next play. On Sunday, on the third play of the second half, Burfict, who is also the hard drive of Guenther's iPad on the field, jumped a route by running back Javorius Allen off Mallett's bootleg and came up with another all-out, extended diving pick, this one on the sidelines at the Ravens 33.
Five plays later the Bengals had the lead for good on McCarron's five-yard TD fade to wide receiver A.J. Green at 14-9.
"Huge play," said left end Carlos Dunlap. "It was play-action. I tried to get a little piece of the running back to slow him down for him. He saw it and jumped the ball. Made a hell of a catch."
"It gave us the spark we needed," Nelson said.
They barely finished out of the NFL top ten total defense at No. 11, but they helped win a division by coming up with the right plays at the right time. Like two fourth-down stops in the second half. Like the fourth-and-three from the Bengals 38 on the drive after they took the lead. Mallett tried to go to his favorite target, rookie tight end Maxx Williams. Williams lined up split right and then slanted inside on a crossing route but cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick stayed in his spot, broke on the ball, and broke it up.
That field positon set up the last touchdown. As Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham is fond of saying, a fourth-down stop is as good as a turnover.
"You can't really (tell just by looking at the statistics)," said defensive lineman Wallace Gilberry. "That's one of those stats. That and turnovers (are important stats), and we had a turnover today."
Actually, they had four. Two interceptions and two fourth-down stops. All in the second half. Middle backer Rey Maualuga came up with the second pick with 24 seconds left, his second pick in as many games against Mallett.
But maybe the most telling thing this about this defense is they weren't very pleased after Sunday's effort. Cornerback Adam Jones growled, "Some of these games shouldn't be the way they are. We let them stick around today."
It looked like Guenther was heating up Mallett with a blitz he doesn't usually use that much. But by the time the dust cleared, Mallett had gunned 56 passes, tied for fourth most ever against the Bengals. Guenther blitzed 12 times, or about 21 percent, according to profootballfocus.com. Not much more than he dialed up for Brock Osweiler on Monday night in Denver.
But effective. Mallett never got off one of his feared deep balls. But he did complete 30 passes.
"I know that on paper it means something good, obviously," Maualuga said of the team record. "But I know Paul and you guys don't hear him on the sidelines cursing and hollering (as) he's obviously not satisfied with our performance out there on the field. But you can't hide it, you know? We're just not playing the type of defense we should be playing at the end of the season. We've just got to fix some mistakes and get better, because I know we can be a better defense than what we're showing."
It turns out Mallett's two-yard TD pass to fullback Kyle Juszczyk with 1:47 left cost them the title. If they held them to a field goal, they beat Seattle. It was only the sixth TD pass they allowed at home this season and just the third in the last six games.
"I'm so mad we gave them that last touchdown. Communication," Vinny Rey said. "We have to be perfect on communication. We're chasing perfection. I was mad about that. It's a travesty if we don't learn from that."
But the postseason is here and so is Burfict.
"Perfect time," Dunlap said. "We're going into the playoffs and we're going to make some noise."
Cincinnati Bengals host the Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium in week 17 of the regular season.