CINCINNATI (AP) — The cotton candy, hot dogs and two-for-one tickets worked. Paul Brown Stadium will be full and rowdy for a game with playoff implications all around.
If the Baltimore Ravens (11-4) win on Sunday, they’ll secure only their third AFC North title, a bye and a home playoff game. By beating a top team for the first time all season, the Bengals (9-6) can clinch a wild card and only their third playoff appearance in the last 21 years.
And, the home team will have a real home-field advantage for the first time this season. Snubbed by disgruntled fans, the Bengals lured them back for the final game with pleading and price-cutting.
The atmosphere will fit the high-stakes game.
“We’ve got to do one thing: We’ve got to go in and get a victory and come up out of there,” Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis
said. “So, if there is one person in the seats or whether it’s 60,000 in the stands, we don’t care about it. That’s their problem. We’ve got our own problems.
“We don’t have to worry about selling out. We have to worry about trying to keep people out and things like that. We have a different vibe in Baltimore, and that’s a credit to our city, that’s a credit to our fans. So that’s something they have to worry about, not us.”
The Ravens will reach the playoffs even if they lose, in which case they’d get the first wild card. They enter the final week tied with Pittsburgh at 11-4, but swept their season series and have the head-to-head tiebreaker for the division title, which is much preferred.
A home playoff game is no small matter for Baltimore. The Ravens went 8-0 at home this season, only 3-4 on the road.
Baltimore has been a good road playoff team in recent years, but set home-field advantage as an overriding goal for this season. The Ravens had all of their playoff games on the road in each of the last three seasons. They lost the AFC title game in Pittsburgh in 2008, and had second-round losses at Indianapolis and Pittsburgh again in the last two years.
A victory in Cincinnati would leave them 6-0 in division play for the first time in their history and secure their first home
playoff game since the 2006 season. They would get home field throughout the playoffs if they win and New England (12-3) loses at home to Buffalo.
“It makes a world of difference,” running back Ray Rice said. “It’s huge — anybody will tell you. I personally feel like after
you win the wild card round and not having that bye, you usually come back to that next game scratching and clawing. As you can see, Pittsburgh was the fresher team last year when we had to play them in the divisional game. Needless to say, this week is a playoff game. It’s big for them, it’s even bigger for us.”
The Bengals are trying to complete one of the most unexpected playoff surges in their history. Nobody gave them much of a chance with rookie quarterback Andy Dalton and rookie receiver A.J. Green taking over key spots. The duo grew up quickly — Green made the Pro Bowl, Dalton is a first alternate — and Cincinnati took advantage of a cushy schedule and other teams’ stumbles to stay in contention.
The Bengals got in line for the wild card when the Jets (8-7) lost their last two games. Cincinnati will clinch it with a win.
The Bengals also could get in with a loss, though they’d need a lot of help — a combination of either the Jets and Raiders losing, or the Jets and Broncos losing.
“We’re so excited for this week,” defensive lineman Domata Peko said. “No one’s ready for the offseason yet. No one’s bags
are packed or anything. We’re ready to keep going and make our Super Bowl run, and it starts this week.”
The Bengals lost in Baltimore 31-24 on Nov. 20, when Green missed his only game of the season because of a bruised knee.
Cincinnati fell behind 31-14 early in the fourth quarter, but Dalton led a furious comeback. He threw for 373 yards — a Bengals rookie record — but set up the big deficit with three interceptions.
It was part of a trend. The Bengals are 0-6 against teams that are currently in first place or have clinched playoff berths.
Fans have stayed away because they’re upset with owner Mike Brown, whose franchise has one of the worst stretches of futility in league history. It appeared the Bengals were on their way to becoming a consistent contender when they won the AFC North in 2005 behind quarterback Carson Palmer, but they couldn’t sustain it.
Now, with Dalton and Green and a young defensive core, they’re at the same point again.
“I know we can be that type of team,” middle linebacker Rey Maualuga said. “All I can picture is us growing and becoming
special. I just hope we don’t start in a couple years. Why not start this week and feed off that and just build on that? I know we’re capable of being that team.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)