Everyone expected the Cincinnati Bengals to roll at home against a 5-10 Baltimore Ravens club, but AFC North rivalry games are rarely easy.
Though the Bengals had far more to play for while owning a four-game winning streak over Baltimore, it was the Ravens who held a 9-7 halftime lead in Week 17 as they looked to continue their playoff spoiler role. However, the Bengals would rally in the second half for a 24-16 win to finish 12-4 going into the playoffs.
Here is a look at this week's Bengals winners and losers from their regular-season finale.
The Bengals' first matchup with the Ravens saw Tyler Eifert held without a catch, but he made sure to make an impact this time around. In what was Eifert's first start alongside AJ McCarron, the young quarterback made sure to go to his big tight end early and often as the two looked like they'd been playing together for years.
Eifert finished the first half with four catches on four targets for 51 yards and the Bengals' lone first-half score, a 22-yard touchdown that put Cincy up 7-6:
Bengals take 7-6 lead with 1:49 remaining in the first half. https://t.co/qEoUUd7eTv— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) January 3, 2016
A.J. Green in Red Zone
Back before Week 12 kicked off, A.J. Green had hauled in just four touchdowns on the season. Since that week's game vs St. Louis, Green has erupted for six scoring grabs over his last six games. His latest may have been his most impressive as he made two great toe-tapping grabs to put the Bengals in the red zone before scoring from five yards out:
A.J. Green with amazing back-to-back receptions, leading to a TD and a 14-9 Bengals lead in the third. https://t.co/aIP1QvVrkL— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) January 3, 2016
Bengals take 14-9 lead with an amazing reception. https://t.co/xlxIc59zdQ— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) January 3, 2016
That score gave the Bengals a 14-9 lead in the second half after they spent much of the game trailing to that point. While Green was having a good season with Andy Dalton as his quarterback, he's clearly stepped up his game and is making tougher catches to help AJ McCarron as much as he can.
Your best players need to step up their game when faced with adversity, and Green has been a great example of this during the past few weeks.
There isn't much question that last week in Denver was easily one of the worst games Geno Atkins has had in what's been an All-Pro type of season. It wasn't that Atkins played bad as much as he didn't make any big plays like we've become accustomed to seeing. He didn't have a sack or even a tackle for loss, but he made sure to have both of those early against Baltimore.
Atkins had a monster first half that helped keep the Ravens' offense at bay while the Bengals' offense was struggling to do anything.
Geno Atkins with a manly QB sack on third down, forcing the Ravens to punt. https://t.co/Ez93SDW8o5— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) January 3, 2016
Geno Atkins with a tackle for loss. Oh my. https://t.co/vPGcyBmKFs— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) January 3, 2016
This was the kind of bounce-back performance you'd expect from a player the caliber of Atkins, who finishes the regular season with 11 sacks, a shade off his career-high of 12.5 set in 2012. He may have not reached that mark this season, but he definitely is back to being the same player he was that season when he was the best defensive tackle in football.
The Bengals' defense has been one of the NFL's best this season, and Emmanuel Lamur has quietly had a decent season while playing in every game. Unfortunately, he suffered a scary knee injury in the first half vs Baltimore. It came on a kickoff in the second quarter as Lamur was attempting to make a block, but went down clutching his knee before having to be helped to the sideline while putting no weight on it.
Lamur was then carted to the locker room before the team quickly ruled him out with a knee injury that was clearly serious. If he's out, AJ Hawk will be the full-time strongside backer with P.J. Dawson possibly getting more snaps. We'll also likely see Vincent Rey, who's played mainly on the weakside and in them middle, get some snaps there as well.
This is a tough break for Lamur, who is also set to become a free agent this offseason. He probably wasn't going to get a big-money contract, but this is still going to be a costly injury for him.
The Bengals Offense
While AJ McCarron has done some good things as the Bengals' starting quarterback, it remains painfully clear this offense simply isn't the same without Andy Dalton. The most obvious reason why is that Dalton puts the Bengals' offense in the best position to win and make big plays more than McCarron is able to, regardless of how good McCarron may look throwing the ball at times.
Their first lead of the game didn't come until the second half after a Vontaze Burfict interception put the Bengals at the Ravens' 33-yard line before they eventually scored to take the lead. From there, the offense found enough rhythm to come out with a win, but it still was a performance full of far too many errors and missed opportunities. In the playoffs, the Bengals will need to show better effort and ability.