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Bengals' title means they've finally made it

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CINCINNATI (AP)

More than just a home playoff game. More than some commemorative shirt or cap. The AFC North championship is especially gratifying to a Bengals team that has spent years trying to catch up.

Now Baltimore and Pittsburgh and Cleveland are trying to catch them.

The Bengals (10-5) clinched their first division title in four years on Sunday. A 42-14 win over Minnesota, combined with the Ravens' loss to New England, gave Cincinnati its eighth division title overall in 46 seasons.

Cincinnati is in the playoffs for the third season in a row, a first for the franchise. The last two seasons, the Bengals made it as a wild card.

''In my career, this is only my second time winning a division,'' safety Chris Crocker said on Monday. ''For me, that says a lot. It's that hard to do. I've been in the AFC North nine out of my 11 years, and I've played these teams a bunch and now we're at the top, we're the team that people are trying to catch right now.

''We've been chasing Baltimore and Pittsburgh for so long. They've been so good and it just feels really good to be at the top and now it's kind of like we're looking down at everybody else.''

The Bengals didn't get much chance to congratulate each other on their title, which they clinched when Baltimore lost early Sunday evening. Players had the day off Monday, except to get treatment or work out on their own.

Even though they've clinched the title, there's still a lot at stake in the final game of the regular season. The Bengals host the Ravens (8-7), who are tied with Miami and San Diego for the final wild card.

Cincinnati still has a chance to move up to the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye. Denver (12-3) and New England (11-4) have the top two spots. Cincinnati currently is third, followed by Indianapolis (10-5). The Bengals beat the Colts during the season, giving them the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Currently, the Colts would host Kansas City (11-4) and the Bengals would host the other wild card in the first round, while the Broncos and Patriots get a week off. If the Bengals win on Sunday and the Patriots lose at home to Buffalo in a later game, Cincinnati would get the No. 2 seed and the bye because it beat New England during the season.

''I feel good, but I'll feel a lot better if New England loses,'' Crocker said. ''I really would feel much better if they lose and we take care of business this Sunday. I was hoping they lost this weekend. But it's never done. It's just like hey, you can't turn your mind off right now.''

The Bengals know their season will be judged solely on one point: how they fare in the playoffs. They've lost in the opening round at Houston each of the last two seasons, getting overwhelmed in the high-stakes games.

Cincinnati hasn't won a playoff game since the 1990 season, tied for the seventh-longest streak of postseason futility in NFL history. They're 0-4 in the playoffs under coach Marvin Lewis, who is in his 11th season.

This team is starting to change perceptions. A playoff win would be the biggest step.

''It's the first time we've been in the playoffs three consecutive times,'' defensive tackle Domata Peko said. ''That's amazing. We're creating history here.

''We've had that one-and-done stuff. We want to go further.''

Notes: LB Vontaze Burfict was being evaluated for a concussion suffered in the second half of the win over Minnesota, leaving his status uncertain for the final game. LB James Harrison missed the game with a concussion. ... RT Andre Smith left in the second half with a sprained ankle, forcing the Bengals to move Anthony Collins from left tackle to right tackle. Andrew Whitworth returned to left tackle from the left guard spot. If Smith's ankle is slow to heal, it's likely the line will stay that way against the Ravens.

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NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

Tagged: Bengals, Ravens, Andre Smith

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