CINCINNATI — Cigars weren’t the only things being lit into, and smoke wasn’t the only thing hanging in the air amid a raucous Bengals locker room celebration Sunday. This follows Cincinnati’s 27-16 victory against the Ravens that eliminated the need to flip a coin to see where next week’s wild-card game between the teams will be played.
Several Bengals defensive players were angry with the actions of several members of the Ravens offense, but they stopped short of providing names and details. They instead opted to leave their accusations lingering in the thick, pungent air, instantly lighting the wick on what is sure to be an intense ramp-up to the first-ever postseason matchup between the heated division rivals.
“I don’t really have much to say about that team over there. I have respect for some guys over there, and I don’t for some,” defensive tackle DJ Reader said.
“I don’t want to get into details, but somebody on that team…” defensive lineman Joseph Ossai said before stopping himself. “We’ll see ’em next week. That’s all I’m saying.”
Whatever happened that had the Bengals so incensed was going on beyond the view of those watching, including the officials. Only two personal foul penalties were called, and both were on the Bengals when cornerback Tre Flowers drew a face mask penalty and defensive end Trey Hendrickson was called for roughing the passer on the same play. The Ravens had five penalties for just 22 yards.
Bengals backup offensive lineman Jackson Carman, who had just entered the game, had an incident where he took finishing his block to an extreme by driving Ravens linebacker Tyus Bowser out of bounds and into a chain-gang member, setting off a scrum.
“Their player had been on the sideline most of the game prior to that and maybe took five reps in the entire game before that,” Ravens linebacker Justin Houston said of Carman. “He wanted it to look impressive for his guys. You know that kind of beef. He was just trying to make an impression.”
But that was midway through the fourth quarter, well after the bad blood had reached a scalding level between the Bengals defense and members of the Ravens offense. Many of them, like Carman, were backups thrust into bigger roles when Baltimore coach John Harbaugh opted for health over home field by sitting several key offensive starters, including tight end Mark Andrews, running back JK Dobbins and Pro Bowl right guard Kevin Zeitler.
Whether it was the backups or some of the starters, the Bengals took exception to how they played.
“There was some s— I don’t agree with,” Reader said.
“There was a lot of cheap s— going on,” Bengals cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt added. “Just know that we owe them. Even though we won this s—, we owe them.”
Taylor-Britt, when pressed for more, went closer than any of his teammates to offer specifics.
“It was a lot of late stuff,” he said. “Just after the game, doing dirty stuff you shouldn’t do in football. Aiming at guys’ legs and stuff and other dirty hits. We don’t play like that. We’re gonna remember that.”
Whether coach Zac Taylor expected that from the Ravens or it was purely coincidence, he had his team ready for a fight. During Saturday night’s team meeting, he showed the team a video of the fight scenes from the movie “Gladiator.”
But with a twist.
Team video coordinator Brooks Santanello and intern Tanner McDole superimposed the faces of Bengals players on the actors who were doing the ass-kicking in the scenes. First it would be Jessie Bates delivering the blows, then the face would shift to Vonn Bell or Ja’Marr Chase or any number of other Bengals.
“It was a pretty cool video, talking about finishing the season off the right way,” Bates said.
“It was great,” defensive end Sam Hubbard added. “I actually watched the extended cut of ‘Gladiator’ during the day Saturday before I came in. That’s my favorite movie. I was a little extra fired up.”
The video helped get Bates’ mind back on football after he missed Saturday’s walk-through to drive home to Fort Wayne, Ind., for the funeral of his 23-year-old cousin, Keishon Edwards, who died in a car wreck on New Year’s Day.
Bates got the defense rolling Sunday by intercepting Anthony Brown — Baltimore’s third-string quarterback who was thrust into a starting role due to injuries to Lamar Jackson and backup Tyler Huntley — on the first play of the Ravens’ second drive.
That was the first of three turnovers in the first half and led the Ravens to one scoring drive on the way to a 24-7 lead.
The last of those turnovers was a strip-sack by Hendrickson in the end zone that led to Ossai falling on the ball for his first NFL touchdown. It came in the final minute of the half after Drue Chrisman delivered a 56-yard punt to the Baltimore 5-yard line. The Ravens tried to cut into a 10-point deficit and instead fell behind by 17.
That might have been where things started, or elevated. After that score, the Ravens got the ball back with 30 seconds left. Brown threw three incompletions, and the Ravens had runs of 3 and 9 yards.
Instead of taking a knee on third-and-10 from their own 37 with five seconds left, they called another run, and center Tyler Linderbaum delivered a blow to Ossai’s back as a group of defenders held up running back Justice Hill.
As the teams ran to their locker rooms, words were exchanged near midfield before the players separated.
“There were some situations where it was like, ‘What are they doing?'” Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson said. “It was just weird.”
Some Bengals players attributed the nastiness to good old-fashioned AFC North rivalries and a season finale in which both teams had something on the line.
“They were playing for a lot over there, too, so they were chippy,” Hendrickson said. “We were playing for a lot, too. And when guys are playing for a lot, tempers get high and a lot of things get said, and some people take it a little personal.”
“I’m not gonna comment too much on it,” Hubbard said. “I think they could have done some things differently, but it’ll get resolved next week.”
The Ravens will return to Paycor Stadium next weekend and are expected to have weapons such as Andrews and Dobbins on the field, along with former Bengal Zeitler and possibly quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Dehner Jr.: Bengals have reason to celebrate heading into the playoffs
It’s a unique situation to have division rivals finish the regular season and then turn around and square off in the playoffs, but it’s one cornerback Mike Hilton has experienced. He was on the 2020 Steelers team that lost to the Browns 24-22 in the finale and then fell at home to them 48-37 a week later.
“I’ve got mixed feelings about it,” Hilton said of the instant rematch. “It’s definitely going to be tough, especially them being a division team. It’s teams that have respect for each other but don’t like each other. It’s the fun part of the season. Win or go home. Best time in the world.”
The first meeting between the Bengals and Ravens was in Week 5, with Baltimore, led by Jackson, prevailing 19-17.
The distance since that game and Baltimore’s offensive backup personnel from Sunday make both games seem less relevant heading into the playoff game.
“All the stuff that happened in that Sunday night game when we played them, today, none of that stuff is gonna matter next week,” Bates said.
Well, some of it might matter.
Whatever set off the Bengals to take a break from their victory celebration to point fingers and call out the Ravens not only isn’t going away but also has almost a week to intensify.
The bad blood and hard feelings go back further than 2022. There was former defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale zero blitzing over and over again in a game the Ravens led 27-0 during Joe Burrow’s rookie season. He then called out the Bengals for kicking a field goal late in that game to ruin the shutout and avoid more hits against Burrow.
Then last season, Burrow threw for 525 yards and four touchdowns as the Bengals offense gleefully romped to a 41-21 shellacking against a Baltimore defense that, like Sunday’s Baltimore offense, was devoid of numerous starters.
“There’s been some history between the Ravens and the Bengals,” Bates said. “It’ll be good to send those guys home next week.”
(Top photo of Mike Hilton celebrating an interception: Dylan Buell / Getty Images)