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Cincinnati Bengals should keep the starters in and "play to win the game"

The Cincinnati Bengals will have a decision to make on Sunday. Do they play the starters and risk losing positioning or the opportunity for a spot? Or do they play everyone all game with an effort to make beating Baltimore a priority.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

Should the Bengals keep their starters in and make beating Baltimore a priority? Or should they rest their starters, compromising everything that they've worked for this year?

It's not a difficult question to me.

Four years ago when the Bengals claimed the AFC North championship in 2009, they couldn't advance any further than the No. 4 seed by the regular season finale. Let's rest some guys. Rehabilitate some injuries. We'll be good to go for the wild card game. The New York Jets needed a win to clinch a postseason berth and the Bengals acquiesced their need by resting their starters and laying a duck in New York, losing 0-37. The following week, New York eliminated the Bengals from the postseason.

Four years before that, Cincinnati couldn't improve their spot as the third seed during the regular season finale after winning 11 of their first 14 games that season. Let's rest some guys. Rehabilitate some injuries. We'll be good to go for the wild card game. So they rested starters and took a clobbering in Kansas City Chiefs during a 3-37 loss. The following week, and with a little hate from the football gods, Pittsburgh eliminated Cincinnati from the postseason.

Two for two. Win the division. Take a smoke break in week 17. Become regulars in the first-round exit club. Sounds like the chorus of Lynyrd Skynyrd ballard with a hint of Tuesday's gone in the background. We've done that song and dance. Experienced the over-confidence by looking at a piece of paper and boosting that we could "beat them, and them, and them, all of them, and them, and them..."

In reality, we've beaten no one.

Not necessarily breaking news, but there you go.

In both cases the Bengals had a division-winning team but entered the playoffs with no momentum, believing that resting their starters in week 17 would benefit their squad more than the liability that it possibly posed.

Granted, there is ONE discrepancy from those seasons (beside the obvious change in roster and coaching and front office personnel... OK, that's a lot but hear me out). Cincinnati lost the final two games in the regular season before Pittsburgh eliminated them in the wild card round in '05. The Bengals lost three of their final four games in '09 before the Jets handed Cincinnati a one-way ticket to wild card elimination hell. In both seasons, Cincinnati cut bait at the end of the regular season and failed to recreate the successful formulas in the postseason. The 2005 season is obviously associated with an asterisk. The whole Carson Palmer and Chris Henry getting hurt thing soured the experience. Yet the Bengals were still winning at half time against the team that needed a week 17 win just to qualify for the postseason.

It's not like the Wild Card years have been any gentler.

Heading into the regular season finale against the Baltimore Ravens, the Bengals needed a win or a lot of help to clinch a postseason berth in 2011. Cincinnati lost 24-16. OK, the help? The Bengals needed the New York Jets to lose and either the Raiders or Broncos to suffer the same fate. All three teams lost. Cincinnati made the postseason, despite losing to the Ravens, and were quickly dispatched by Houston during the first round.

And last year was similar to '05 and '09. Unable to improve their positioning (or lose spots), the Bengals played starters in the first quarter and progressively replaced them with backups. Cincinnati played a tighter contest in the playoffs, but they still lost to Houston in the first round.

Look at all of that again.

When they had something to play for in 2011, they lost. When they had secured their spot and rested players, they lost. The Bengals have never won the regular season finale during any season that they've qualified for the playoffs.

So here's a thought. Play the starters for all four quarters and win the damned game.

Can you imagine the momentum going into the playoffs beating the Baltimore Ravens, who remain the one team that Cincinnati can't beat? Yes, yes. The backup Bengals players beat the backup Ravens players in the regular season finale last year. Tyrod Taylor. A stud. That's all I really remember from it.

But let's be serious. Let's look at it for what it is. This iteration of the Bengals (est. '11) hasn't beaten Baltimore yet. Not once in 2011, nor the game when the starters played the entire game in '12 or the overtime loss earlier this season. That's four games. No wins. A monkey, taking a break from riding Boscoe the dog, clawing into Cincinnati's back.

Beating the Ravens may not mean anything in the playoff picture. It's too symbolic for that and other factors are needed in other American cities. Entering the 2013 playoffs by beating the Ravens and eliminating them from the playoffs? That momentum would be a sight to behold.