CINCINNATI (AP) — The Ravens have studied their possible playoff pairings. The only thing for sure: Baltimore gets to play its first game at home as the AFC North champion.
The opponent? Too early to tell.
“Yeah, we’ve thought about it,” running back Ray Rice said. “We’ve seen it. We know all the scenarios.”
An intriguing one: If the Ravens win on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, there’s a chance they could play division-rival Cincinnati in back-to-back weeks.
Their game on Sunday doesn’t mean a lot. Baltimore (10-5) wrapped up its second straight division title and its fifth consecutive playoff appearance by beating the defending Super Bowl champion Giants 33-14 last week. The only undecided is who they will host in the first game.
If they win on Sunday and New England loses, it will be the Bengals (9-6), who have lost their last four games against the Ravens but wouldn’t be intimidated by facing a familiar team. Cincinnati is locked in as the sixth seed, also waiting to find out where it will go for the first round.
Could be Baltimore. Or New England. Or Houston. Or even Denver.
“We don’t know,” safety Chris Crocker said. “You have an inkling of who it may be. But you really focus on the Baltimore Ravens. They put a licking on us in the first game of the season.”
The Ravens opened the season impressively, beating the Bengals 44-13 on a Monday night. The teams then took very different paths to the playoffs — Baltimore won nine of its first 11 games, went into a slump on offense, changed coordinators, lost three straight games and finally nailed down the division title last week. Cincinnati opened 3-5 but has made the playoffs by winning six of its last seven on the strength of an emerging defense.
The final regular season game represents a chance for both to fine-tune offenses that have plenty of room for improvement.
Baltimore’s has been so inconsistent that coach John Harbaugh fired coordinator Cam Cameron and elevated quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell for the last two games. Baltimore still looked out of sorts during a 34-17 home loss to Denver, its third straight defeat.
The offense had its best moments last week during the 33-14 win over the Giants, piling up a season-high 533 yards. Joe Flacco was sharp, throwing for 309 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Rice and Bernard Pierce each ran for more than 100 yards.
“We needed that,” Rice said. “We needed that, especially coming off that three-game skid. For us to come out there and execute the way we did, that’s definitely a confidence booster.”
The focus Sunday will be on Flacco, who is usually impressive against Cincinnati. Flacco has completed 71 percent of his passes in the last four games against the Bengals — all victories — with five touchdowns, two interceptions and a passer rating of 106.9.
Flacco finally looked comfortable in the Ravens’ up-tempo approach against the Giants.
“Obviously, it worked pretty well and there are always things that we can work on,” Flacco said. “We’re working every week to improve those things and get as good as we can get. But it was a good point, and a good game for us to build off of and try to kind of carry into the next few weeks.”
Cincinnati’s offense is still looking for a break-out game.
The Bengals have reached the playoffs on the strength of their defense, which has held six of the last seven opponents to 13 points or fewer. The defense outscored the offense last Sunday — Leon Hall’s interception for a touchdown set up a 13-10 win in Pittsburgh. The Bengals managed only 14 yards rushing on 16 carries.
“We do have to try to establish some kind of running game getting into the playoffs,” offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. “It would be nice.”
The offense got the season off to a lousy start in Baltimore on Sept. 10. Safety Ed Reed returned an interception 34 yards for a touchdown that set up the 31-point win, one of the worst season-opening drubbings in Bengals history. They’ve waited for the rematch.
“It just happens to be a team that beat us pretty good last time,” quarterback Andy Dalton said. “So we’ve got to come out and we’ve got to do everything we can to execute like we know we can. If we do that, I don’t think it will turn out anything like it did the first time.”
It’s something of a dress rehearsal for two playoff-bound teams.
“The truth is, both of us are teams that are going to playing an extra week,” Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “It’s also an early test to both of us to be playing the kind of ball you have to play in the playoffs to make it to where you want to go.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)