CINCINNATI (AP) — The Baltimore Ravens rested their stars, getting healthy for a first-round playoff game that will have a little more emotion than most.
They’re going to be reunited with Chuck Pagano.
Baltimore decided to rest rather than try its best to win a regular season finale that had more of a preseason feel on Sunday.
Carlos Dunlap returned an interception 14 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, sending the Cincinnati Bengals to a 23-17 victory.
The Ravens (10-6) had already clinched their second straight AFC North title and decided to use the final game to get healthier.
They had several stars inactive and pulled quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice after only two series.
They’ll host Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts next Sunday at 1 p.m. EST, reuniting them with former defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano. The Colts head coach has returned from three rounds of chemotherapy.
“Chuck’s like a dad to me,” safety Ed Reed said. “He means a lot to me. I would have much rather seen them in the AFC championship game than the first game.”
Pagano coached the Ravens’ secondary for three seasons and was promoted to coordinator last year. Players and coaches in Baltimore have kept in touch, offering encouragement as he fought through the cancer treatments.
“I love his family, and he’s one of my closest personal friends in coaching,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “What he’s been through is phenomenal, but we’re all competitors so that gets set aside.”
The Bengals (10-6) were locked into the sixth seed as the final wild-card team, unsure where they would go to start the playoffs. They will open on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. in Houston, where they lost 31-10 in the first round last season.
The Bengals went into preseason mode on a 26-degree afternoon with a wind chill of 16 degrees and got their seventh win in the last eight games.
“I’m glad that’s over,” coach Marvin Lewis said. “That’s a difficult situation to be in. I thought our guys handled it about as well as you can handle it.”
Josh Brown kicked three field goals in the second half. Dunlap tipped one of Tyrod Taylor’s passes to himself and returned it for a clinching touchdown with 6:06 left, jumping into the stands and sitting there for several seconds while fans smacked his back.
The Bengals headed into the playoffs for the second straight season after beating rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore in back-to-back weeks — a breakthrough for a franchise that had been 0-6 against those top rivals the past two seasons.
The defense has led the way, scoring more touchdowns than the offense over the past two weeks. Cornerback Leon Hall returned an interception for the only touchdown against Pittsburgh, and Dunlap clinched the win on Sunday with his return.
The Ravens sat some of their banged-up playmakers and started pulling others from the game after only two series. Receiver Anquan Boldin, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and linebacker Terrell Suggs were inactive, giving them a week to rest.
“It’s an accomplishment to be in a position where you can afford to (rest stars),” Harbaugh said. “If we would have been playing for more, like an opportunity to move up dramatically in seeding, then we would have played them more.”
The Ravens won nine of their first 11 games, giving themselves a big cushion in the playoff race. Their offense struggled down the stretch, prompting Harbaugh to change offensive coordinators.
Baltimore heads into the playoffs with four losses in its last five games.
“I’m more concerned about this team getting healthy,” Rice said. “We are going to hit our stride going into the playoffs.”
The Bengals also went with a conservative approach on Sunday. Andy Dalton didn’t even throw toward A.J. Green until the final drive of the first half, keeping the Pro Bowl receiver out of harm’s way. Bruce Gradkowski took over in the second half for Dalton, who was 10 of 15 for 78 yards with a pair of sacks.
Brown kicked field goals of 47, 32 and 38 yards in the second half.
Taylor, who had thrown only four passes all season, replaced Flacco and led a pair of touchdown drives by running away from defenders. Anthony Allen ran 2 yards for a touchdown, and Taylor scored on a 1-yard run.
Notes: The crowd of 61,565 gave Cincinnati six sellouts in eight home games. The Bengals sold out only two games last season on their way to the playoffs. … Baltimore’s Justin Tucker missed a 45-yard field goal try and made one from 49 yards, leaving him 30 of 33 for the season. His 90.9 percent success rate set an NFL record for a rookie. … The Bengals had four sacks, giving them a franchise-record 51 for the season. … S Chris Crocker hurt his right thigh while trying to make a tackle in the first quarter and didn’t return. He said the injury wasn’t serious.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)