If you had better things to do with your Sunday than to watch two football teams who had both already made the playoffs awkwardly dance between pulling starters and “playing to win,” then I applaud you. You, clearly, are a more useful human than I am. I was glued to this latest game between the Ravens and Bengals because it was such an odd animal to behold. It was amusing to me, probably, because for as long as I have been a Ravens fan, and for as many successful seasons as we have had, I don’t remember ever rooting for us when we were in a position to rest starters. (I could be forgetting our 2006 season, in which we went 13-3 with the late Steve McNair, but that year I left for college in New England, so forgive me.) The contest against the Bengals was also entertaining because I have never seen so many forgotten-about names on the field at one time for the Ravens, outside of blowout victories and preseason games. Yes, indeed: In preparation for the playoffs, the Ravens brass decided to treat our game at Cincinnati as a sort-of fifth preseason game, with injured defensive stalwarts like Ngata and Suggs riding the pine so they could heal, and important starters like Flacco and Rice being limited to two (unimpressive) drives before getting yanked for good—to prevent injury, I suppose. It was fun to watch and hard to watch. Just like a preseason game.
I don’t like it when teams rest starters—especially, as it was with the Ravens on Sunday, when there is even a sliver of a chance that a win will improve standing in the postseason. Working against the Ravens was the fact that Miami at New England was scheduled after our game, so there was no way for Harbaugh to scoreboard-watch and adjust things accordingly. Still, though, in the immortal words of Herm Edwards: “YOU PLAY TO WIN THE GAME.” In situations like this, it’s all about injury. I get that! I really do. If Harbaugh were to keep an important player in a game that was as close to meaningless without being technically meaningless as ours was (because, really, who thought the ‘Fins would beat the Pats even if we’d won?), he would be DESTROYED; by fans, by local reporters, by ESPN analysts who’d fight for the chance to condemn him for his stupidity and hubris. And they all, on some level, would be right: When the outcome of a game is no longer in question, the cost-benefitness of sending the most talented players on the field skews toward heavy cost. But this was not the Ravens’ situation on Sunday. Against the Bengals, the Ravens had a chance to keep momentum going into the playoffs, after having finally and enthusiastically righted a three-game losing streak against the defending World Champions. The offense, in only its third game with a new coordinator, had a chance to refine itself. Instead, we trotted out the big-name guys for two go-nowhere series before sending out the J.V., who, despite some good performances, helped us to our fourth loss in five games. Not the kind of mojo you want in January.
Ravens fans, from what I can tell, are torn on this issue. Some thought it was a smart move by the Ravens to rest starters (not just the injured ones, but almost all of them): Their logic was that we could win in the playoffs without beating Cincinnati, while we could not win in the playoffs if we injured someone important in a close-to-worthless game. Others think the Bengals game was about more than getting a mark in the “W” column: It was about gaining steam for the Lombardi push, about willingness to risk injury in a sport that is inherently risky. I get where the former camp is coming from, but count me in the latter.
I’ll grant that our back-ups did well, especially against a playoff team obsessed with avenging a butt-whooping from Week 1: It took the Bengals’ first-team offense two full quarters to score on the Ravens’ second-team (which at one point forced five straight punts), and the Ravens’ second-team offense, operating from the zone-read option you often see from the Redskins, Seahawks and Niners, sometimes punked the Bengals’ first-team defense. I’ll also grant that the Ravens are a hot-and-cold team who play well at home, and a loss to the Bengals does not necessarily translate into a loss to the Colts (our wild card opponent), especially since we play the Colts in Baltimore. I will ALSO grant that there was a slight chance the Ravens and Bengals could have met next week, and that even if they didn’t, this would’ve been a poor time to overly tip our hand. (Which makes me wonder why Harbaugh RAN A FAKE PUNT. Why does he only run gimmicky special teams plays when they are least necessary???) But history is not kind to teams that have rested uninjured starters late in the season. Think of the Packers from last year, or the Colts during the Peyton Era, and contrast those infamous letdowns with the Eli-led Giants, for example, who have won two Super Bowls by virtue of getting hot and staying hot. I gotta say it: I think the Ravens would’ve been better served by playing the Bengals how the Bengals played the Ravens—with pivotal starters in ’til at least halftime, invested in making drives and scoring a few points.
But now is no time for us Ravens fans to be grouchy. For the first time in franchise history, we are champions of the AFC North in back-to-back seasons. In each of the last three seasons, we have achieved double-digit wins. And in a year in which the defense was not its usual self, the offense picked up the slack: Flacco, Rice, et al. managed to break the franchise record for single-season points scored (formerly 391, now 398), and also notched the highest points-per-game average in franchise history (25.4). ‘Tis the season for being grateful and stuff—so purple faithful, take heart! I’ll see you in the postseason.