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Ravens run to division title, first-round bye

CINCINNATI -- Ray Rice accelerated into a gaping hole, busting through the right side untouched behind a crushing block from guard Marshal Yanda. And the Pro Bowl running back's legs didn't stop firing like pistons until he strode into the end zone without the Cincinnati Bengals' defense even laying a glove on him as Yanda sealed off middle linebacker Rey Maualuga to lead to Rice's 70-yard jaunt.

The touchdown propelled the Baltimore Ravens to an early advantage as they immediately signaled their intentions of seizing the AFC North division crown and the second seed in the AFC playoffs Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. Rice duplicated the feat in the fourth quarter with another long touchdown run to seal the game, a 51-yard sprint with fullback Vonta Leach punishing Maualuga to clear a path. Playing a smart, gritty brand of football with Rice providing the offensive firepower, the Ravens manufactured a workmanlike 24-16 victory in their regular-season finale to go unbeaten in six division games for the first time in franchise history.

"I was off to the races," said Rice, who rushed for 191 yards and finished the season with 1,364 while breaking the Ravens' single-season touchdown record with 15 total scores. "Running backs, we get the glory. Man, that bill is going to be expensive for what I have to get my offensive line. I have to get those guys something nice. ..

"When we win, everybody wins. 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. Winning the game was huge." Now, the Ravens (12-4) have earned a first-round bye next weekend and are guaranteed to play at least one home playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium. That's a major development since the Ravens went undefeated at home this season with a perfect 8-0 mark.

The Ravens have won 18 of their past 19 home games, not losing at home since Dec. 5, 2010 when they fell to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Ravens swept the Steelers this season, going 6-0 against the AFC North.

Under the NFL playoff format, the Ravens are set to host a playoff game on Jan. 15 with a 1 p.m. kickoff against the second-highest remaining seed that emerges from the wild-card round. "This is a great achievement, especially when you consider whatever doubters we had," middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "We swept our whole division. Now, the world comes to Baltimore. .. "It was the way it was supposed to be. It was joyful. You're bringing 2012 in, you clinch the division, you get the week off to rest. To have that opportunity is huge. That's why there's so much excitement."

This marks the Ravens' first division title in five years and only the second time they've won the second seed after being a wild-card playoff team for each of the past three seasons. They held off a late charge by the Bengals after nearly squandering a two-touchdown lead in the second half.

"I'll leave the eloquence up to you guys, but we all felt it right here in the pit of our stomachs," coach John Harbaugh said. "Our football team really wanted to win this game. We really needed to win this game. For our team to sweep the division and to go undefeated at home, I'm just so proud of these guys for that. It's a great accomplishment to win this particular division.

"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. This is one championship. We still have two more that we're shooting for: the conference championship obviously and a world championship. I was so grateful to be a part of something like this, to have this kind of moment." Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs forced a fumble by swiping the ball away from tight end Jermaine Gresham in the fourth quarter with strong safety Bernard Pollard pouncing for the turnover.

Three plays later, Rice was in the end zone. Then, the Ravens held the Bengals to a 23-yard Mike Nugent field goal that narrowed the gap to eight points.

Cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Chris Carr defended two heaves into the end zone in the final seconds from rookie quarterback Andy Dalton to put the game away as each deep throw intended for Pro Bowl rookie wide receiver A.J. Green fell incomplete.

"This feels good," Suggs said. "Everyone's kind of happy, taking it in. I'm just going to take it in and celebrate with my brothers. We did it together."

Tight end Dennis Pitta caught a game-high six passes for 62 yards. And he hauled in a nine-yard touchdown catch on a fade pass from quarterback Joe Flacco to the corner of the end zone that staked the Ravens to a 17-3 lead. Afterward, Pitta donned an AFC North Champions baseball cap.

"The hat fits great," Pitta said. "I'm going to wear this one home. We've worked so hard. This was our goal: to be division champs." And the Ravens contained a dangerous passing game led by Dalton and Green, limiting Dalton to 232 yards and no touchdowns.

He targeted Green nine times, but only connected for two catches for 26 yards.

Clinging to an eight-point lead in the final minutes after Nugent's field goal, the Ravens got the job done when it counted after the Bengals had exhausted all of their timeouts. "The message was, We do this all the time in practice, we do two-minute drills, don't let them in,'" free safety Ed Reed said. "Don't let them get anything crazy, don't let them get anything stupid because the game was kind of getting out of control a little bit.

"We knew they weren't going to quit. Cincinnati always plays us to the end, every minute of the game. Those guys fight." As do the Ravens. Suggs sacked Dalton on the Bengals' second-to-last drive to make them settle for a field goal.

Earlier in the half, Baltimore allowed a 25-yard touchdown run to running back Bernard Scott as he scooted past Lewis and ran through an arm tackle attempt by Reed to close the gap to 17-10. Then, Nugent connected on a 46-yard field goal with 12:35 to go in the fourth quarter. Without Rice's contributions in the first quarter and the fourth quarter, this game could have been even more difficult.

"I think it's important anytime Ray touches the ball," Lewis said. "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." Despite the defeat, the Bengals qualified for the playoffs as the sixth and final seed in the AFC and will play the Houston Texans on Saturday in the wild-card round. It's their third playoff appearance in the past two decades. If not for the Ravens' electrifying start to the game punctuated by Rice's first touchdown run, they might not be enjoying the strong position they earned heading into the postseason. Flacco managed the game effectively, committing no turnovers as Rice did the heavy lifting on offense and the defense held its own against the Bengals' explosive passing game.

"It was obviously pretty exciting," said Flacco, who completed 15 of 19 passes for 130 yards and one touchdown pass. "We haven't won the division since I've been here, especially the way we did it. To go undefeated in a division that has three playoff teams is a pretty big accomplishment. "It's definitely big. We didn't just win the division, we beat everyone. It says that we will probably see one of those teams down the road and we'll have to get after them again." .





Ravens' victory in Cincinnati earns them AFC North division title

CINCINNATI — Withstanding a late rally by the Cincinnati Bengals, the Baltimore Ravens accomplished everything they wanted to do Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.

The Ravens' dramatic 24-16 victory earned them the AFC North division title, a first-round bye, the second seed in the AFC and the satisfaction of going undefeated in the AFC North with six wins over division rivals. Here's how they got it done:

1. Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice busted two long runs to score two of the Ravens' three touchdowns. He set the tone immediately with his 70-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, cutting outside off offensive guard Marshal Yanda's seal block. In the fourth quarter, Rice followed his blockers again as fullback Vonta Leach delivered a powerful lead block on middle linebacker Rey Maualuga in the fourth quarter to clear a path for Rice's 51-yard touchdown run. Rice's vision and speed took care of the rest as he gained 191 yards on 24 carries. Rice broke the Ravens' single-season franchise record with a combined 15 touchdowns. Meanwhile, quarterback Joe Flacco committed no turnovers as he effectively managed the game and completed 15 of 19 passes for 130 yards for one touchdown and no interceptions for a respectable 112.7 quarterback rating.

The Ravens split out tight end Dennis Pitta at wide receiver with Anquan Boldin sidelined again with a torn meniscus in his knee and Lee Evans unproductive. And Pitta came through with a game-high six receptions for 62 yards and one touchdown on a fade route to the corner of the end zone.

As for Evans, he didn't start and was targeted once for no receptions. Rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith contributed five catches for 33 yards.

2. The Ravens' defense didn't break down completely as the Bengals charged back in the second half after falling behind by two touchdowns. It wasn't always pretty as the Bengals piled up 19 first downs and 336 yards of total offense. Baltimore held them to one touchdown and three field goals, which is fairly impressive against such an explosive offense. Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs forced tight end Jermaine Gresham to fumble in the fourth quarter, immediately leading to Rice's touchdown run.

It was the biggest defensive play of the game. Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton completed 22 of 44 passes for 232 yards, but threw no touchdowns.

The Ravens contained Pro Bowl rookie wide receiver A.J. Green as he caught only two passes for 26 yards despite being targeted nine times. Gresham had a good game overall against safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard, catching five passes for 72 yards.

When it counted, the Ravens got it done by holding the Bengals to 0 for 2 in the red zone.

3. Pro Bowl kicker Billy Cundiff made a successful return from a left calf injury that has affected him for the past month, connecting on his lone field goal from 42 yards and converted all of his extra points.



Ravens notebook: Suggs' big play helps Ravens seal win

CINCINNATI - Terrell Suggs pulled off a robbery in the clutch, swiping the football away from Cincinnati Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham. The Baltimore Ravens' Pro Bowl outside linebacker forced a pivotal fumble in the fourth quarter of a 24-16 win over the Bengals on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.

Three plays after strong safety Bernard Pollard recovered the loose football, running back Ray Rice scooted 51 yards into the end zone for the Ravens' final score.

"We like to get turnovers as a defense," said Suggs after breaking his own franchise record with his seventh forced fumble of the season. "The coaches are always forcing that issue, that we have to get turnovers. On the play before, the guy got outside and it was my fault. "Ray Lewis said you owe me one, pretty much. I said, ‘All right.' When he caught the ball, I knew he missed it and said, ‘Just go for the strip,' went for it and got it." Without Suggs' contribution, this game could have had an entirely different outcome. "We needed a play," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "In games like this, you need your best guys to come up with a play in critical moments like that."

The subsequent touchdown by Rice with 5:41 remaining in the fourth quarter staked the Ravens to a 24-13 advantage, enough cushion to hold off the Bengals.

"Obviously, that turnover was a big part of the game," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "For us to score the touchdown was huge." It wasn't the only big play from Suggs in the second half.

He sacked rookie quarterback Andy Dalton on the Bengals' ensuing drive to help limit them to a 23-yard Mike Nugent field goal.

Ordinarily, Suggs has had trouble rushing the passer against Bengals offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth and only had 1 ½ sacks against them previously over the past five seasons. "He threw three that were right over my head or outside of my hands," said Suggs, who finished with a career-high 14 sacks in the regular season. "I thought I was going to get a pick, actually. That's what I was going for, but I'll take the forced fumble and the sack. It all goes into the stats. We all love stats on defense, particularly me."

After the game in the Ravens' raucous locker room, Suggs' teammates chanted, "MVP," to the five-time Pro Bowl selection and former NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

"It's flattering when your team thinks that," Suggs said. "It would be a nice accomplishment to be alongside Ray Lewis and Ed Reed." YANDA RETURNS: Pro Bowl offensive guard Marshal Yanda played through a lot of pain, starting and playing the entire game despite bruised ribs that prevented him from practicing most of the week. Yanda delivered the key block on running back Ray Rice's 70-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, bashing into middle linebacker Rey Maualuga.

"I'm hurting right now, but it's all good because we won," said Yanda, who signed a five-year, $32 million extension with Baltimore in August. "That was the goal. That was the objective to play because they needed me. I played and we won and it don't get no better than that." Yanda had trouble breathing normally as late as Friday and was listed as doubtful on the injury report.

Yanda indicated that his ribs aren't cracked, but said: "My cartilage is loose from my rib bones. I fell on it again and hurt it again at the end. At that point, I was just going to fight through it." Yanda's grit didn't go unnoticed. "It was a huge boost," Harbaugh said. "We thought there was a chance he would play, but wasn't totally sure. There's not a tougher player I've been around in 27 years of coaching." Considering the severity of the injury, Rice was concerned that Yanda might not be able to play in this game

"You see him after the game and you see him on Monday, you're like, ‘We might as well prepare without Yanda,' Rice said. "But then you get out there Friday, and you know he's in pain but doesn't complain, and he's good to go. "That's the kind of guy he is. There is a reason why got paid the money he did. I'm not saying it's about the money, but it's well-deserved. He's a Baltimore Raven." The first-round playoff bye is especially meaningful for injured players like Yanda to recuperate.

"That was the plan: to play and get the bye," Yanda said. "It's huge. Things are good in Baltimore right now."

CUNDIFF IS BACK:

Billy Cundiff made a strong return after missing last week with a left calf injury. He booted a 42-yard field goal with no trouble in the first quarter. He made all of his three extra points and had a pair of touchbacks.

"I had full confidence that I was going to play," Cundiff said. "It was just a matter of making sure they had full confidence that I could last the whole game. It was a constant communication to make sure we were on the same page." Just to be safe, the Ravens kept Shayne Graham on the roster and ultimately decided to go with Cundiff after both players made the trip to Cincinnati and warmed up before kickoff. Cundiff made a 53-yard field goal prior to the game.

"Just the way I was able to make contact with the ball and be aggressive, I could tell it was better," Cundiff said. "There were times when I've kind of held off. To now be able to get through it, it makes all the difference. "The thing that's really going to make a difference is now that I've got a game under my belt. I'll be able to do a lot of rehab and build up the strength in my leg. The strength still isn't quite where it needs to be, but it's still light years better than it was."

BANGED-UP:

It was a rough game for the Ravens physically as at least four players sustained injuries.

Starting inside linebacker Jameel McClain was the only one able to return to the game after spraining his knee, and that was out of necessity. Special-teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo sprained his quadriceps, and rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith and strong safety Tom Zbikowski suffered concussions. It's the second concussion of the season for Zbikowski. At least the Ravens have a bye this week to heal up.

"We have a much better chance now," Harbaugh said. "Towards the end of the game, we were down six or seven players with various things. It doesn't look like anything serious, but we had three or four concussions, an MCL sprain and a couple other things. We were scrambling, but now we have two weeks and an opportunity to get healthy"

BOLDIN ON THE MEND:

Veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin has made a speedy return from his slightly torn meniscus in his knee that was repaired surgically.

He said he almost felt well enough to play Sunday. "I'm cool," Boldin said. "I'm able to play. If it was a playoff game, I definitely would have been able to play. I played with it partially torn all year. It got to the point where my knee started catching and I wasn't able to run or anything like that.

"For me it was a tough decision whether or not to play. The guys told me they would take care of it. I feel like I made the right decision to get ready for the next game."

HOME-FIELD ADVANTAGE:

The Ravens built an undefeated record at M&T Bank Stadium, going 8-0 in front of their fans.

Now, the AFC North champions host their first home playoff game in five seasons in two weeks. "This was our goal," linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "We won the division and we got a home game. The fans want to see us play at home and they got it. We're real excited."

WILLIAMS RETURNS: Starting cornerback Cary Williams returned to play after suffering a concussion against the Cleveland Browns that limited him in practice all week.

He passed his baseline neurological test Saturday and started Sunday, recording six tackles and leading Baltimore with three pass deflections. "I had to get acclimated to the game again because concussions are hard to come back from," Williams said. "I felt good. It took a little while for me to get comfortable. I wanted to be mentally prepared and really not stick my head in on any tackles.

"No head-to-head collisions, avoid them at all costs. It was great being out there with my teammates. They believed in me. When you have those guys behind you, you can't help but do well."

PITTA TIME:

Tight end Dennis Pitta lined up at wide receiver and wound up catching six passes for a career-high 62 yards and a touchdown. Pitta caught a nine-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Joe Flacco in the second quarter on a fade route to the corner of the end zone. "It was a corner route," Pitta said. "The cornerback bit on Torrey Smith as he came across the middle. Joe threw a perfect ball to the corner and we were able to complete that one."

ED REED MISSES TACKLE:

Pro Bowl free safety Ed Reed tried to tackle running back Bernard Scott in the third quarter, but his arm tackle attempt wasn't sufficient to bring him down. Scott ran away from him for a 25-yard touchdown run.

Reed acknowledged that his shoulder is bothering him. He's also dealing with a nerve impingement in his neck that has affected his tackling. "It ain't so much the nerve impingement as it was my shoulder," Reed said. "On that particular play, when I hit the guy and bounced off, it was just a bad angle. "I can't do that. I understand that. I'm just as hard a critic as anybody. Just got to have better angles."

QUICK HITS:

The Ravens deactivated receiver Anquan Boldin, Graham, linebackers Sergio Kindle and Dannell Ellerbe (concussion), cornerback Danny Gorrer, rookie running back Anthony Allen and rookie offensive tackle D.J. Jones. ... The Bengals scratches were linebacker Dontay Moch (illness), strong safety Taylor Mays (concussion), free safety Robert Sands, wide receiver Armon Binns, defensive tackle Nick Hayden, tight end Colin Cochart and offensive guard Otis Hudson.



Baltimore Ravens' Report Card

CINCINNATI -- Grading the Baltimore Ravens' 24-16 win over the Cincinnati Bengals:

Quarterback: B-minus

Joe Flacco did what he was asked to do: manage the game effectively. He completed a high percentage of his throws, connecting on 15 of 19 passes for 130 yards for one touchdown and, most importantly, no interceptions for a 112.7 quarterback rating. He was only sacked once and stayed within himself and didn't attempt to do too much.

Running back: A

Pro Bowl selection Ray Rice had a terrific game, saving one of his best performances for a pivotal regular-season finale as he rushed for a game-high 191 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries. He ran for touchdowns of 70 and 51 yards. Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach delivered some punishing lead blocks to spring Rice. Backup runner Ricky Williams rushed for 28 yards on six carries.

Offensive line: A

Joe Flacco was only sacked once against a strong pass-rushing defense. Pro Bowl offensive guard Marshal Yanda gutted it out, playing with painful bruised ribs and had the key block on Ray Rice's first touchdown run. Offensive tackle Michael Oher, except for a false start penalty, had a good game. He had some clutch blocks when the Ravens needed him to seal off defenders to free up Rice.

Receiver: C

If not for tight end Dennis Pitta contributing six receptions for 62 yards and a touchdown while often lining up at wide receiver, the passing game would have been ineffectual. Rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith was unable to strike deep and was held to five catches for 33 yards with a long reception of 13 yards. The Ravens got nothing out of wide receiver Lee Evans for the second consecutive week and didn't start him as they opened the game in a two-tight end set of Pitta and Ed Dickson. Evans was targeted once and didn't have a catch. It's time for Anquan Boldin to return from his knee injury.

Defensive line: C-plus

Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata knocked down a pass and provided some push. Defensive end Cory Redding contributed four tackles. Nose guard Terrence Cody started off well, but was getting blocked in the second half as the Bengals' offense took advantage of holes up the middle.

Linebacker: C-plus

Middle linebacker Ray Lewis finished with seven tackles, but none were particularly impactful. He moved better this week, but still had trouble tracking down runners and receivers in the open field. Running back Bernard Scott got away from him on a 25-yard touchdown run. Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs' forced fumble led to Ray Rice's final touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Suggs also had a sack late in the game. Jarret Johnson had a quiet game except for his personal foul penalty.

Secondary: B

They held the Bengals' dangerous passing game in check as cornerback Cary Williams knocked down three passes. Cornerback Lardarius Webb helped contain star wide receiver A.J. Green to two catches for 26 yards even though he was targeted nine times. Acrobatic wide receiver Jerome Simpson caught only five passes for 54 yards. Free safety Ed Reed's tackling is being affected by a sore shoulder and nerve impingement in his neck.

Special teams: D

They nearly had several punts blocked as there was virtually no protection for punter Sam Koch. They allowed Brandon Tate to average 11.3 yards per punt return and 24 yards per kickoff return. The bright spot was kicker Billy Cundiff returning from a left calf injury and connecting on his only field goal attempt from 42 yards.

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