CINCINNATI (AP) — Standing in the raucous Ravens locker room, Dennis Pitta slipped the blue AFC North Champions cap onto his head and tugged it tight.
“The hat fits great,” the tight end decided.
Not just great, but perfect.
Baltimore finished a perfect run through the division on Sunday night, beating the Cincinnati Bengals 24-16 for its third AFC North title behind Ray Rice’s two long touchdown runs.
The Ravens (12-4) ran off the field with helmets raised in celebration, slipped into their championship shirts and caps, then headed home — the only place they want to be at this time of the year.
Behind Rice’s big day, Baltimore clinched the AFC’s No. 2 seed and a first-round bye, followed by a playoff game at home, where they’re 8-0 this season.
“This is a great achievement, especially when you consider whatever doubters we had,” linebacker Ray Lewis said. “We swept our whole division. Now the world comes to Baltimore.”
Despite the loss, the Bengals (9-7) also got into the playoffs, securing the final wild card as the Jets and Broncos also lost in games that ended around the same time. It’s Cincinnati’s third playoff appearance in the last 21 years.
No hats or shirts for the Bengals, though. They exchanged congratulatory hand slaps with a few fans as they left the field,
and that was it for the celebration.
“It’s kind of weird,” said rookie quarterback Andy Dalton, who was 22 of 44 for 232 yards with no interceptions or touchdowns. “Obviously we didn’t get it done today, but we still have a chance.”
Cincinnati will play next weekend at Houston, which donned caps and shirts in celebration of the AFC South title after beating the Bengals 20-19 at Paul Brown Stadium on Dec. 11. Dalton is 3-0 at Reliant Stadium, where he played two games in high school and one at TCU.
With Paul Brown Stadium packed with Bengals fans for the first time all season, Rice made the biggest plays on a blustery
afternoon that made it tough to throw. He had a career-best 70-yard touchdown run on the fourth play.
Rice also broke a 51-yard touchdown run on a third-and-1 play with 5:41 to go, essentially finishing Cincinnati’s chances of yet another big comeback. Rice finished with 191 yards on 24 carries and set a club record with his 15th touchdown of the season.
Baltimore’s defense had a big hand in it, too. Linebacker Terrell Suggs hit tight end Jermaine Gresham after a catch, jarring the ball loose. Three plays later, Rice went 51 yards to put the Ravens on the verge of a title.
Suggs sacked Dalton, forcing the Bengals to settle for a field goal on their next possession. Cincinnati got the ball back at its 20 with 1:05 to go and no timeouts left. The game ended with Dalton’s desperation pass into the end zone.
“This feels good,” Suggs said. “You just have to take it in.”
During that final, futile drive, the Broncos’ score was shown on the videoboard, drawing a loud cheer from the crowd of 63,439. The Bengals sold out their stadium by offering two-for-one ticket deals.
Ravens players raised their arms in triumph as they ran off the field after Dalton’s final pass. They made home-field advantage for the playoffs an overriding goal after having to play on the road each of their last three years in the postseason. It was sweet to get it.
“I’ll leave the eloquence up to you guys, but we all felt it in the pit of our stomach,” coach John Harbaugh said.
Wind gusts of over 30 mph toyed with long passes and kicks, forcing teams to go conservative. The Ravens got the better of it behind their multifaceted running back.
Rice found a huge hole behind Marshal Yanda’s block and outran Cincinnati’s secondary only 2 minutes into the game.
Cincinnati’s defense got sloppy and helped the Ravens drive for a touchdown and a 17-3 lead at the half. Penalties for holding, illegal contact and a high hit moved the ball to the Cincinnati 9-yard line with 19 seconds left. The Ravens used their final timeout to set up Joe Flacco’s touchdown pass to Pitta in the far corner of the end zone. Flacco went 15 of 19 for 130 yards without an interception.
The Bengals stayed in playoff contention by pulling off comebacks, overcoming double-digit deficits in the second half
three times. They put themselves in position for another one when Bernard Scott broke a 25-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter. Mike Nugent’s 46-yard field goal cut it to 17-13 early in the fourth quarter, but that was all they managed.
The Bengals reached the playoffs despite losing all seven of their games against playoff contenders this season. They lost five of their last eight games, but got the wild card with the help of the Jets’ late-season collapse.
Notes: The Ravens also won the division in 2003 and 2006. Rice joined Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk as the only players with 1,000 yards rushing and 700 receiving in more than one season. Suggs has a career-high 14 sacks, one shy of Peter Boulware’s club record from 2001. Ricky Williams carried six times for 28 yards and became the 26th player in NFL history to run for 10,000 career.
K Billy Cundiff was back after missing one game with a sore left calf. He made a 42-yard field goal into the wind. It’s the
third time in the last four years that an AFC North team went 6-0 in the division– Pittsburgh did it in 2008 and Cincinnati in 2009.
Bengals K Mike Nugent made three field goals, giving him a team-record 33 for the season. The Bengals haven’t won a
playoff game since 1990.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)