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NFL Preview - Baltimore (8-7) at Cincinnati (10-5)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - What was shaping up as a Week 17 showdown for the AFC North crown has now morphed into one final chance for the reigning Super Bowl champions to get back into the NFL postseason.
Cincinnati handled its business last week and the Baltimore Ravens did not, developments that mean the Bengals are the division champs while John Harbaugh's group faces a must-win situation and help elsewhere to earn a postseason berth.
Andy Dalton threw for 366 yards and four touchdowns in Week 16 as Cincinnati took down Minnesota, 42-14. Dalton did so on 27-of-38 efficiency, connecting with A.J. Green twice and Jermaine Gresham and Mohamed Sanu once apiece for the Bengals (10-5), who locked up a playoff berth for a franchise-record third straight season.
In addition, with Baltimore's 41-7 home loss to New England, Cincinnati became AFC North champions for the first time since 2009.
"This team didn't set out to make the playoffs. We set out to try and go to the Super Bowl and that goal hasn't been reached yet. We still have a ways to go," guard Andrew Whitworth said.
Green ended up with team highs of 97 yards on seven receptions against the Vikings, while Marvin Jones contributed 85 yards on six grabs.
"That's a credit to the guys in there and it's an awesome thing," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said of capturing the division title. "It's one more checkmark we can get off the wall and now is a chance to get another one. I look forward to that. Until you do, people can always take shots at you and now that that's done we can move on to the next one."
Conversely, the Patriots' LeGarrette Blount scored a pair of rushing touchdowns and Tom Brady threw for another, as New England used a sterling defensive effort to rout the Ravens in Week 16.
A banged-up Joe Flacco threw for 260 yards on 22-of-38 attempts and ran for a touchdown, but was picked off twice and sacked four times for Baltimore.
"It's disappointing," said Flacco, who injured his left knee in the previous week's game in Detroit and was forced to wear a balky brace. "We're used to going out there and playing well when we need to and when playoffs are on the line. We came out today hungry and ready to go get ourselves into the playoffs or make our next step towards it, and we just didn't do it."
Ray Rice was limited to 40 yards on the ground on 11 carries, while Marlon Brown caught four balls for 51 yards.
To reach the postseason now Baltimore must beat the Bengals, who happen to be a perfect 7-0 at Paul Brown Stadium this season, and hope either Miami, which plays at home against the New York Jets, or San Diego, which has Kansas City at home, lose.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Bengals still have a chance at a first-round bye with a win, coupled with a New England loss so they don't plan on resting any starters.
"We want to defend home and make sure we win," Bengals cornerback Pacman Jones said. "If it was my choice, I don't want Baltimore to make it. We've got to make sure we defend the house and play all four quarters."
Flacco wasn't the same last week against the Pats after injuring his knee. The Super Bowl MVP didn't look all that comfortable with the knee brace but will need it again this week and downplayed its affect on his play.
"I'm going to do it the same way," said Flacco. "I really just want to make sure I can be as safe as I can moving forward so nothing crazy happens. I'm pretty comfortable with it. It's not ideal, but it is what it is and it's not that big of an issue."
Flacco needs 280 passing yards this week to join Vinny Testaverde (4,177 in 1996) as the only players in Ravens history to reach 4,000 in season. The Ravens' offense, though, has been sputtering recently, scoring just one TD in the last two games.
Things don't figure to get easier against the Bengals' defense, which is sixth in the NFL against both the run and the pass despite being without All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins (torn ACL) and starting cornerback Leon Hall (torn Achilles) for significant portions of the season.
"We're used to these guys," Flacco said. "They're a good defense. They have been for a few years now. It's always a good test to play a division opponent in their place. They have a lot to play for. We have a lot to play for. It's going to be a good game, a good test."
Flacco's counterpart this week, Dalton, is also on the verge of a pair of team records himself. He has 4,015 passing yards and 31 TD passes and needs just 117 more yards and two more TD throws to set new franchise marks, Green, meanwhile, is 76 receiving yards short of Chad Johnson's Cincinnati record.
"It shows what we've been able to accomplish this year," Dalton said. "I think that only happens if we've been winning games and doing some good things. Personally, it's cool to be close to those records, but like you said, wins are what ultimately matters."
The Ravens usually respond in these types of situations, going 4-0 under Harbaugh coming off losses of 20 points or more.
"I think that's part of who we are," Harbaugh said. "If you've been watching us all year, you would know that. You would understand that about us. It's a one-game season as far as we're concerned."
The problem here is the Bengals are perfect at home and have been averaging a staggering 43.5 points per game in their last four at Paul Brown Stadium. On the other hand, Baltimore is 2-5 as the visitor this year, has lost four straight at Cincy and Flacco isn't healthy.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bengals 27, Ravens 20
12/27 10:27:28 ET
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