- Associated Press - Sunday, January 3, 2016

CINCINNATI (AP) - The close defeats and major injuries piled up for the Ravens week by week, leaving them to play out a lost season. It ended with another one that fit the profile.

AJ McCarron overcame a rough start and threw a pair of touchdown passes Sunday, rallying the Cincinnati Bengals to a sloppy 24-16 victory.

With their season finally over, the Ravens (5-11) could start focusing on the next one.

“I’m not big on moral victories, but this team has endured so much,” linebacker Elvis Dumervil said. “I’m proud of the tough-minded team we have from the top to the bottom.”

Baltimore lost more players to injury than any other team in the NFL, including quarterback Joe Flacco. The Ravens upset Pittsburgh the previous week, but couldn’t knock off another division rival with its cast of backups.

“This has been one of the most rewarding seasons I’ve ever had,” coach John Harbaugh said. “It’s hard for people on the outside to understand that.”

Ryan Mallett made his second start for the Ravens and went 30 of 56 for 292 yards against a defense that gives up a lot of yards, but had allowed the fewest points in the league. His 2-yard touchdown pass cut it to 24-16 with 1:47 to go, but he threw his second interception with 24 seconds left.

“As much work as I put in, I felt comfortable,” Mallett said. “I’m looking forward to the spring and to (workouts). I’ve gotten a good crash course.”

The Bengals (12-4) matched the best record in franchise history - they also won 12 games during the 1981 and 1988 seasons when they reached the Super Bowl. Their playoff seeding was still unsettled when the game ended, coming down to Denver’s game later in the day.

Cincinnati won two of its last three games after McCarron took over for Andy Dalton, who broke his right thumb during a loss to Pittsburgh at Paul Brown Stadium. Dalton is scheduled for an exam on Monday and is hoping to return at some point in the postseason.

The AFC North champions wasted a chance to clinch the No. 2 seed and an opening-round bye - another week for Dalton to heal - when they lost in Denver 20-17 on Monday night, ending it with McCarron’s fumble on a snap.

Jeremy Hill ran for 96 yards and put the Bengals in control by breaking through the line for a 38-yard score on a fourth-and-1 play in the third quarter.

McCarron made his third career start in Dalton’s place - his first at Paul Brown Stadium - and did enough to get the win. He didn’t have any problems with his sore left wrist, injured while trying to recover his game-ending fumble in Denver.

The Bengals got a scare when McCarron grabbed his left knee and was slow getting up in the third quarter after being tackled while throwing a pass. McCarron stayed in the game. He finished 17 of 27 for 160 yards with three sacks, no interceptions and a 103.9 passer rating.

The Bengals have been trying to get McCarron ready to start in the playoffs. His inexperience showed at the outset on Sunday when he failed to spot open receivers and was off-target on throws, resulting in four straight punts.

A pass interference penalty set up his 22-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Eifert, his 13th scoring catch of the season. Vontaze Burfict’s interception at the Baltimore 33-yard line set up McCarron’s 5-yard touchdown throw to A.J. Green for a 14-9 lead.

Hill’s longest run of the season - his previous best was only 17 yards - on the fourth-down play put the Bengals in control midway through the third quarter.

Notes: Cincinnati has won its past five against Baltimore, its longest winning streak in the series. … The Bengals failed to convert a third-down play, going 0 for 9, and matched their season high with 11 penalties. It was the first time Cincinnati won a game without converting a third-down play since 1995 when they beat Indianapolis 24-21 in OT, according to STATS. They also were 0 for 9 in that one. … Ravens S Will Hill hurt his back in the first half and didn’t return.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL


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