CINCINNATI (AP) — What feels like the end of the road for Steve Smith isn’t at all what he or the Baltimore Ravens expected.
They were mere seconds away from taking control of the AFC North when the Steelers snatched it away from them, scoring a touchdown with 9 seconds left for a 31-27 win that ended Baltimore’s chances last week.
So here they are, heading to Cincinnati — a place where they often finish the regular season — trying to find motivation for their depressing ending.
“It’s definitely tough,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “You’re right there. You’re inches away from winning the game and being in a completely different position.”
Instead, the Ravens (8-7) and Bengals (5-9-1) will be starting a new year together on Sunday with a mix of angst and tears.
Smith reiterated this week that it’s likely to be the final game in his remarkable career. The 37-year-old receiver would have liked to end with a championship celebration of some sort, but he’ll have to settle for yet another finale in Cincinnati.
“It is going to be furious, feisty,” Smith said. “It is going to be fun.”
Several of the Bengals can relate. Cincinnati has 15 potential free agents, and they know this will be the final time some of them run out onto the field wearing a tiger-striped helmet.
“It’s an emotional game just because I treat it that way every season,” said left tackle Andrew Whitworth, wrapping up his 11th season. “You never know if you’ll get to play this game again.”
Some things to watch on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium:
FAMILIAR ENDING: It’s the sixth time in the past seven seasons that the AFC North rivals have finished the regular season against each other. The Bengals have won the past three such games, all of them in Cincinnati. The Ravens haven’t won a game at Paul Brown Stadium overall since 2011, which provides some incentive.
“That’s challenge enough,” Harbaugh said. “That would be motivation for any team.”
STILL STINGS: It’s going to take more than a week for Ravens safety Lardarius Webb to get over the loss to Pittsburgh. The Ravens had taken the lead — and potential control of the division — on a touchdown with 1:18 left, but Ben Roethlisberger put together the Steelers’ third touchdown drive in the quarter to pull it out.
“That will be on my mind all offseason,” Webb said. “While I work out, while I grind, while I get ready for next year, that Steelers game will be on my mind throughout.”
BIG-GAME SMITH: In six games against the Bengals, Smith has topped 100 yards receiving four times, including 186 yards in a game last season.
Another 100-yard game on Sunday would move him up the career list. He has 51 such games, tied with Andre Johnson and Terrell Owens for fourth. He could move into fourth place alone, trailing Jerry Rice (76), Randy Moss (64) and Marvin Harrison (59).
GETTING HIS KICKS: Baltimore’s Justin Tucker had an incredible game when the teams played in Baltimore on Nov. 27. He made field goals of 52, 57 and 54 yards in the first half of a 19-14 win. Tucker has 10 field goals of 50 or more yards this season, tied with Blair Walsh for the NFL season record. He leads the NFL with 37 field goals and needs three to become only the third kicker in league history to have 40 in a season, joining David Akers (44 in 2011) and Neil Rackers (40 in 2005).
DEPLETED OFFENSE: The Bengals are wrapping up the season without tight end Tyler Eifert, receiver A.J. Green and running back Giovani Bernard, their three top receiving options. Eifert aggravated a back injury and went on injured reserve this week. Green strained his right hamstring on Andy Dalton’s first pass on Nov. 20 and didn’t play again. Bernard tore an ACL in the same game. Without their top threats, the Bengals have struggled, especially at the end of games. They’ve managed only one touchdown and 18 points total in the fourth quarters of their past seven games.
“There were a lot of young guys that played,” Dalton said. “They hadn’t been here a whole lot. At times, we had three rookie receivers out there.”
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