CINCINNATI — — As the Ravens head into the postseason, one question remains unanswered from the preseason and regular season. There is still doubt about whether this offense can carry the Ravens.
The offense had hot and cold moments early in the season and then disappeared until near the end when the Ravens resurrected it last week against the New York Giants.
The Ravens attacked the middle of the field. They moved quarterback Joe Flacco around in the pocket. They got everyone involved in the offense and they beat down the defending champions.
If this offense had indeed been reborn, it would have been great to see it again in the final game against Cincinnati, but head coach John Harbaugh pulled the plug after the second series.
Flacco, running back Ray Rice, offensive tackle Michael Oher, receiver Torrey Smith and center Matt Birk were lifted from the game and joined receiver Anquan Boldin and fullback Vonta Leach on the bench.
Their time on the field was long enough to see Flacco throw a good pass over the middle but then overthrow two receivers on basic pass patterns used in Pop Warner.
So, what else is new, right?
The hope was to see if the Ravens could rev up the offense again, and if they had achieved some consistency going into the postseason. In the past, defense has carried this team but times have changed.
The answer won't come until next week.
"We thought a lot about it," said Harbaugh when asked about playing his offensive starters more. "But considering everything at stake, we decided to go two series with it."
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis used a different approach with his offense. In their previous postseason appearances under Lewis, the Bengals have given up a lot of rushing yards near the end of those seasons and Lewis wanted a more sense of urgency going into the 2012 playoffs.
On Sunday, he rotated his starting defensive linemen throughout the game and kept his starting linebackers on the field.
"We've done a good job," said Lewis of his defense in the second half of the season. "We had some quarterback runs today that weren't pleasing, but it's a different situation when (Tyrod Taylor) is going to run it and not throw. We didn't necessarily plan for those things, it is what it is. But they've done a nice job of really understanding the situation, the explosive plays and the things that were a little bit of our Achilles heel early. "We've been able to remedy those."
"As we go forward now into the playoffs and through the playoffs, that's going to be really important that we continue to understand that and get in great position and not have those explosive plays against us," said Lewis.
Harbaugh seemed irritated after the game.
Maybe the irritation came from learning that the Indianapolis Colts had defeated projected top seed and struggling Houston, which might have been the Ravens' second round opponent.
After their loss to Cincinnati, it appeared the Ravens would be headed to Denver or New England if they beat the Colts.
I'd be irritated, too.
McKinnie looks rusty
Ravens left offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie got plenty of playing time, but didn't show enough to earn time as a starter.
McKinnie, who has never had good bend in his knees, actually played well when the Ravens rushed the ball, but he looked rusty and slow in pass protection. It was more a matter of technique than anything else.
On the snap, McKinnie failed to step out and was caught flat footed allowing pass rushers to force him back on the quarterback. If he gets faster and makes the correction, he might be a force again.
McKinnie laughed when asked about knocking rust off.
"A little bit, yeah," he said. "Yeah, I got the rust off. It gets me used to game speed again."
Burdened with penalties
Regardless if it's the first team or second team playing, the Ravens need to reduce the number of penalties. They had 10 for 102 yards. Some like holding or pass interference are part of the game, but the Ravens have some truly stupid ones.
The worst came on the Ravens' first drive of the game. On a third-and-12 from the Bengals' 32, Flacco threw incomplete to tight end Dennis Pitta which would have forced a 48-yard field goal attempt.
Instead, Rice got called for unsportsmanlike conduct after pile driving linebacker Vontaze Burfict into the ground after he had already cut Burfict at the knees.
The penalty put the Ravens out of field goal range. Those types of selfish mistakes kill teams in the postseason.
Not all penalties are bad ...
Ravens defensive tackle Terrence Cody had a roughing the passer penalty midway in the third period, and that was one penalty I supported.
It was the first time Cody had been in the same zip code with a quarterback all season except when he pals around with Flacco in practice.
Chykie Brown shows progress
The more Chykie Brown plays, the more he stands out.
Brown, the Ravens second-year cornerback, got beat and gave up a 44-yard reception midway in the fourth period, but he plays a physical game and isn't afraid to challenge receivers.
He has been a pleasant surprise for the Ravens this season especially with cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith struggling with injuries.