BALTIMORE — All those stirring comebacks and down-to-the-wire finishes won't mean a thing if the Cincinnati Bengals can't find a way to play a complete game against a tough opponent.
They didn't do it against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, absorbing a 31-24 defeat and squandering an opportunity to move into a first-place tie in the AFC North.
Instead, the Bengals were again left wondering what went wrong. One week after rallying from a 14-0 deficit before losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati came up short in an effort to climb out of a 17-point hole against Baltimore.
And now, the Bengals (6-4) are in third place behind the Steelers (7-3) and Ravens (7-3).
"In my mind, we're better than those teams," tight end Jermaine Gresham said. "They're great teams and everything, but I think big mistakes killed (us) in some areas. We just have to get better. We will get better."
The need to play a full 60 minutes against elite competition was a constant refrain in a quiet Cincinnati dressing room, where players lamented their inability to compensate for untimely mistakes and voiced a sense that they could perform at a higher level.
"It comes down to the fourth quarter," said rookie quarterback Andy Dalton, whose would-be game-tying drive stalled at the Baltimore 17. "That's how every game's been for us. We've got to start faster. We can't wait around until the end of the game to pick it up, come out and get back in it. It's definitely going to be a focus for us."
Bengals defensive tackle Domata Peko added, "We played a good game today, but we didn't finish. Usually, we finish. We need to finish."
Joe Flacco threw for 270 yards and two touchdowns, rookie Torrey Smith had six catches for 165 yards, and the Ravens won despite playing without injured middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who was inactive with a toe injury.
Baltimore yielded 483 yards and let Dalton throw for 373, but the defense picked off three passes made big plays when it counted most. After Ravens running back Ray Rice was stuffed on a third-and-1 with just over two minutes left, he remained confident.
"I just looked at the clock and I said, 'Our defense will get it done,'" he recalled. "That's the faith I have in our guys."
Down 31-24, Cincinnati reached the Baltimore 7 before Terrell Suggs collared Dalton, who was called for intentional grounding. On fourth-and-goal, Dalton was sacked by Pernell McPhee.
The Bengals needed seven points because on the previous series, an apparent 9-yard touchdown pass from Dalton to Jermaine Gresham was overturned by a replay that determined the receiver didn't hold onto the ball at the end of a juggling catch. Cincinnati settled for a field goal with 5:32 remaining.
"When the receiver went to the ground, he had the ball in his right hand," referee Ron Winter said. "The ball touched the ground and his hand came off the ball."
Baltimore is locked in a first-place tie with Pittsburgh in the AFC North, but the Ravens own the tiebreaker by virtue of their two wins over the Steelers.
"No. 1 in the division, that's huge," Suggs said. "Now we're the master of our destiny."
Dalton went 24 for 45 with a touchdown. Cincinnati was without standout rookie wide receiver A.J. Green, who hurt his right knee last week.
But the Bengals gave Baltimore all it could handle.
"We've won six games to this point and we'll win some more," coach Marvin Lewis said. "We've just got to circle the wagons, lick our wounds and go."
Baltimore took a 24-14 lead on a 2-yard run by Rice late in the third quarter. The score came after Ravens rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith picked off a pass and returned it 16 yards before fumbling. The loose ball was recovered at the Cincinnati 2 by teammate Brendon Ayanbadejo in a pile that included Winter.
The Bengals' following possession ended with an interception by Lardarius Webb. On the next play, Torrey Smith split Cincinnati's two-deep zone and caught a 38-yard touchdown pass in the back of the end zone to make it 31-14.
Dalton responded with a five-play, 80-yard drive capped by a 49-yard touchdown pass to Andre Caldwell, who slipped behind Jimmy Smith down the right sideline.
The Bengals punted six times in the first half, two short of their season high for an entire game. Cincinnati's offense managed only 143 yards before halftime, 47 of those on one play.
On the Bengals' second possession, Jerome Simpson made a juggling catch for a 47-yard gain to set up a 7-yard touchdown run by Cedric Benson.
The Ravens didn't get past midfield until early in the second quarter, following a 15-yard punt by Kevin Huber. Starting at its 45, Baltimore picked up a first down before Flacco tossed a short pass to Anquan Boldin, who ran the final 20 yards for a 35-yard touchdown.
NOTES: Former Ravens kicker Matt Stover was inducted into the team's Ring of Honor during a halftime ceremony. ... Ravens LB Jarret Johnson made his 74th consecutive start, breaking the franchise record previously held by Michael McCrary and Jamie Sharper. ... Baltimore has won seven straight at home and 15 of 16. ... Cincinnati has lost two straight following a five-game winning streak.