Game 16: Homeward bound: Ravens beat Bengals to clinch AFC North title and first-round bye in playoffs

SportsFootballBaltimore RavensCincinnati BengalsJohn HarbaughRay LewisAFC North

They yelled and chanted and happily grabbed souvenir T-shirts and hats that contained an inscription these Ravens have longed to hear: "AFC North Division Champions"

"This feels good," said linebacker Terrell Suggs after emerging from a boisterous Ravens locker room. "You just have to take it all in."

The Ravens, used to having to do things the hard way come playoff time, had talked all season about the importance of winning the division, grabbing a first-round bye and starting their playoff run at home. Thanks to a pulsating 24-16 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday afternoon in a game that was dominated by running back Ray Rice, the Ravens accomplished all three.

"When we win, everybody wins," said Rice, who rushed for 191 yards and two long touchdowns. "I can only imagine what the city of Baltimore is doing right now. It's amazing. I've been in a playoff game, but never had a home one. First one for me, Joe [Flacco], Coach [John] Harbaugh. We all came in together. Winning the game was huge."

Rice's 51-yard touchdown run with 5:41 left in the fourth quarter -- he also scored on a 70-yard sprint on the Ravens' fourth offensive play -- gave the visitors a 24-13 lead. But it wasn't until the final second had ticked off at cold and windy Paul Brown Stadium that the Ravens (12-4) could finally celebrate.

Down eight points, the Bengals (9-7) got the ball back at their own 20 with just over a minute left. Rookie quarterback Andy Dalton led them all the way down to the Ravens' 33-yard line with 11 seconds to play. However, Dalton's final two passes -- both intended for rookie A.J. Green in the end zone -- were broken up, allowing the Ravens to celebrate.

As it turns out, the Bengals, who figured they needed a win to get in the playoffs, made it anyway because the New York Jets, Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos lost. They'll play the Houston Texans on Saturday in the wild-card round round.

But that, at least as of now, is of little consequence to the Ravens, who finished 6-0 in the division for the first time in team history, won the AFC North for just the third time and secured a home playoff game and a first-round bye for the first time since 2006. The divisional playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium will be Jan. 15 at 1 p.m. against Houston, Denver or Pittsburgh.

"It's a great accomplishment to win this particular division," said Harbaugh, sporting a wide grin and a black championship hat. "I don't know how you could do it any better than winning it here against that football team with the effort they put in, and the crowd was incredible. That's what this is all about. That's why I said I was so grateful to be a part of something like this, to have this kind of moment."

The Ravens' locker room celebration was audible from down the hall at Paul Brown Stadium. The players chanted "MVP" after Suggs was done speaking, and each declaration from a coach or player brought another roar.

"It was the way it was supposed to be," Ravens inside linebacker Ray Lewis said. "It was joyful. You're bringing 2012 in, you clinch the division, you get the week off to go rest, which is really two weeks. To have that opportunity is huge. That's why there's so much excitement."

At least one home playoff game is a huge development for a team that was 8-0 at home during the regular season and hasn't dropped a game at M&T Bank Stadium since Dec. 5, 2010 (against the Pittsburgh Steelers). The Ravens will face the second-highest-seeded team left, while the top-seeded New England Patriots will face the highest remaining seed.

The immediate reward is a bye, an opportunity for the beaten-up Ravens to get healthy. Already missing wide receiver Anquan Boldin (knee) and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (concussion), the Ravens lost defensive backs Jimmy Smith (concussion) and Tom Zbikowski (concussion), and linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo (quad strain) to injuries Sunday.

They also have a host of key performers playing through significant injuries, including Lewis and right guard Marshal Yanda, who was doubtful for the game because of rib and thigh injuries. But Yanda decided Sunday morning that he would play, and his crunching block of Bengals linebacker Rey Maualuga on the Ravens' fourth play helped spring Rice for the 70-yard touchdown.

After the game, Harbaugh called Yanda the toughest player he's ever had in 27 years of coaching.

"I'm hurting right now, but it was all good because we won," said Yanda, who has been having trouble breathing because of loose cartilage in his ribs. "That was the goal, that was the objective. It's huge, 6-0 in the division and playing at home. Things are good in Baltimore right now."

The Ravens led 10-0 late in the first quarter and then 17-3 at halftime after quarterback Joe Flacco led an 11-play, 80-yard drive just before intermission that ended with a pass to tight end Dennis Pitta in the back of the end zone for a 9-yard score.

But the Bengals, who went 4-12 a year ago, started their comeback late in the third quarter. Reserve running back Bernard Scott broke a tackle by Ed Reed and scored on a 25-yard run to cut the visitors' lead to 17-10.

A 46-yard field goal by Mike Nugent made it a 17-13 game, and the Bengals took their next possession into Ravens' territory. But after catching a pass from Dalton, tight end Jermaine Gresham was hit from behind by Suggs, who jarred the ball loose.

Safety Bernard Pollard recovered it, and three plays later, on third-and-1 from the Ravens' 49, Rice burst through the left side, used fullback Vonta Leach's block of Maulauga, and wasn't touched again until just before he dived into the end zone.

"I'm going to give credit to my offensive line and Vonta Leach," said Rice, who set a team record with 15 touchdowns and established a career high with 1,364 rushing yards. "The first one, I just had to stay on track. Vonta got on a guy, and then I was off to the races. The second one, the same thing."

Said Lewis: "I think it's important anytime Ray touches the ball. That's never changed. When we play that type of game, the result is 12 wins and a first-round bye. I take my hat off to that guy. I've watched that boy since college, and to see him grow now in his fourth year is a special, special thing."

The Ravens' sideline erupted after Rice's second score. The Ravens still had more than five minutes before they truly let out their emotions, and it certainly seemed longer than that with the way the Bengals were effortlessly moving down the field in the second half.

But when the clock finally hit zero, the Ravens had achieved a couple of their goals that they had talked about all season.

"For our team to sweep the division and to go undefeated at home, I'm just so proud of these guys for that," Harbaugh said. "This is one championship. We still have two more that we're shooting for -- the conference championship obviously and a world championship."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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SportsFootballBaltimore RavensCincinnati BengalsJohn HarbaughRay LewisAFC North
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