NFL Preview - Baltimore (10-5) at Cincinnati (9-6)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - A pair of playoff-bound AFC North teams close the regular season in Cincinnati on Sunday when the Bengals host the Baltimore Ravens.
The Ravens clinched a second-consecutive North Division title last Sunday and now have a chance to improve their seeding in the postseason. The Bengals, meanwhile, earned a wild card berth for the second-straight year and are locked in as the sixth and final seed in the conference.
Baltimore, which is the only NFL team to reach the playoffs in each of the last five seasons, can still climb to third in the AFC if the Ravens beat the Bengals this week and New England loses to the visiting Dolphins, something that would ensure a Ravens-Bengals rematch in Baltimore during the first round.
"The one thing we know for sure is that we're going to Cincinnati to win," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "That's our No. 1 goal. That's what we do. We're also going to give consideration to going into the playoffs as healthy as we can be."
Baltimore snapped an ugly late-season, three-game slide in Week 16 when Joe Flacco threw for 309 yards and two touchdowns as the Ravens clinched the AFC North crown with a 33-14 dismantling of the New York Giants at M&T Bank Stadium.
Flacco completed 25-of-36 passes with no interceptions and added a rushing touchdown for the Ravens. Ray Rice finished with 107 yards on 24 carries and 51 yards and a score on six receptions, while Anquan Boldin led all receivers with 93 yards on seven catches before leaving the game in the third quarter with a shoulder injury.
"It's about execution. It's a simple word, but it's a very tough task to do," Rice said about the offense, which racked up 533 yards of total offense. "Today, everybody pitched in and everybody did their job."
Cincinnati, meanwhile, accomplished a feat it hadn't achieved in three decades when Josh Brown booted a 43-yard field goal with four seconds remaining to give the Bengals a 13-10 victory over the Steelers at Heinz Field.
The kick vaulted the Bengals into the playoffs while eliminating their other AFC North rival in the process. Cincinnati, an AFC wild card entry a year ago, last reached the playoffs in consecutive seasons in 1981 and 1982.
Brown's clutch kick came one play after Andy Dalton and A.J. Green connected on a 21-yard pass to the Pittsburgh 25, and two after Bengals safety Reggie Nelson intercepted Ben Roethlisberger near midfield with 14 seconds remaining in regulation.
"Huge team win," said Dalton. "It's exactly what we needed to have happen, we needed everybody to play well. Our defense played great, giving us good field position and different things. Obviously (on) offense there's areas we can improve, but it feels good to get the win."
Dalton finished with 278 yards on 24-of-41 passing and was also intercepted twice, with Green amassing 116 yards on 10 catches to help the resurgent Bengals to their sixth triumph in their last seven outings.
The Ravens have won four straight over Cincinnati, including a 44-13 rout in the season opener for both clubs back on Sept. 10. Flacco passed for 299 yards and two TDs in that one, with Rice adding a pair of rushing TDs and Ed Reed a 34-yard interception return for a score.
"We didn't kick the season off very good, and now we get to finish it at home," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "We don't know who we will play (in the playoffs) or where. We just have to take it on ourselves. More in focus, though, is the Baltimore Ravens. They are a good team that just won our division and a team that beat the snot out of us in the first game."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Baltimore found its offense against Big Blue last week, rushing for a season- high 224 yards, which opened up plenty of passing lanes for the previously struggling Flacco.
The Bengals defense has been very stout against the run recently, however, thanks in large part to Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who can create havoc with his ability to penetrate. Cincinnati has allowed just 58.0 rushing yards per game over the last month and an NFL-low 263.3 total yards per game over the past six contests, a stark contrast from a group which was miserable in Baltimore on opening day.
"That's something good to have, especially in the playoffs. You want to have that good defense," defensive tackle Domata Peko told the Bengals' website. "We've just got to keep it rolling."
Offensively, Cincinnati has to figure out a way to get Dalton going against the Ravens. The second-year signal-caller has completed just 54.0 percent of his passes with one touchdown and four interceptions in three career games against a Baltimore defense which has struggled this season but is coming on lately and allowed a season-low 186 yards against the Giants.
"It's a plus for us, an opportunity to go play on the road like this in a real tough environment," Harbaugh said. "It's a rivalry game, it's in the division. These two teams play it out pretty good every single time. So yeah, it'll help us build up our callouses a little bit for the playoffs."
Cincinnati is locked it at No. 6 and, win or lose, the far more likely scenario for the Ravens is that they will finish with the fourth seed and host Indianapolis next weekend.
"We kind of understand what has to happen all across the board as far as where that could shake out on Sunday," Harbaugh said. "But there's no way to say for sure what's going to happen, so we'll just have to see how it plays out."
Both coaches have talked a good game but expect each to play this one close to the vest. So, take the home team.
"The biggest thing is that you can't play this game at half speed," Harbaugh said. "Our guys are going to play the game full speed to win."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bengals 21, Ravens 20
12/27 12:28:11 ET