The Cincinnati Bengals didn’t look like a team that would contend for a postseason spot while being routed by the Baltimore Ravens in the season opener, but both these clubs are playoff-bound following their regular-season finale Sunday in Cincinnati.
Neither is paying much attention to the seemingly countless scenarios that will determine its opponent – including one that would land the Bengals back in Baltimore for next week’s wild-card round.
Cincinnati (9-6) is locked into the AFC’s No. 6 seed after beating Pittsburgh 13-10 last week for its sixth victory in seven games. It eliminated the Steelers from contention after a late interception of Ben Roethlisberger, which helped set up Josh Brown’s 43-yard field goal in the closing seconds.
The Bengals, who were dominated in a 44-13 loss at Baltimore on Sept. 10, would have to visit the Ravens again if they lose Sunday and New England loses to Miami later in the day. It’s perhaps more likely that coach Marvin Lewis’ team will wind up traveling to Foxborough, or even Houston or Denver depending on how things play out.
“We didn’t kick the season off very good, and now we get to finish it at home,” 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.”
Baltimore (10-5) clinched its second straight AFC North title with last week’s 33-14 win over the New York Giants, ending a three-game losing streak in the process. The Ravens currently stand as the No. 4 seed and will host fifth-seeded Indianapolis next weekend unless they win and the Patriots lose.
“We kind of understand what has to happen all across the board as far as where that could shake out on Sunday,” coach John 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.”
The Ravens, who suffered a heartbreaking 23-20 loss at New England in last season’s AFC championship game, will have to win on the road in the playoffs at some point in order to reach the Super Bowl, and Harbaugh believes this week provides a good primer.
They’ve lost five of their last seven trips to Cincinnati despite winning the 2011 regular-season finale there 24-16 on Jan. 1.
“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.”
Baltimore has won the last four meetings overall, with Joe Flacco completing 71.3 percent of his passes with a 106.9 rating in that stretch after going 21 for 29 for 299 yards and two touchdowns in the season opener.
Ray Rice has scored seven TDs during the Ravens’ win streak over the Bengals, and he ran for 191 yards in Baltimore’s last trip to Cincinnati.
Both Flacco (309 passing yards, three total TDs) and Rice (158 total yards, receiving TD) shined in the victory over the Giants as the Ravens gained a season-high 533 yards in their second game under new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, who replaced Cam Cameron on Dec. 10.
“It’s about execution, man. It’s a simple word, but it’s a very tough task to do,” Rice said.
Baltimore rushed for a season-high 224 yards last week, but the Cincinnati defense has allowed an average of only 58.0 yards on the ground over its last four contests.
The Bengals, who gave up 430 total yards in their last matchup with the Ravens, are yielding 264.3 per contest over their last six – the best in the NFL in that stretch.
“That’s something good to have, especially in the playoffs. You want to have that good defense,” defensive tackle Domata Peko told the team’s official website. “We’ve just got to keep it rolling.”
Cincinnati may need another solid defensive effort given that Andy Dalton has completed only 54.0 percent of his passes with one touchdown and four interceptions in three career games versus Baltimore, which allowed a season-low 186 total yards last weekend.
Dalton threw for 278 yards against Pittsburgh, but was picked off twice and sacked six times. The Bengals also finished with only 14 yards rushing, their fewest since gaining four in a 37-0 loss to Baltimore on Sept. 24, 2000, when Lewis was the defensive coordinator for the eventual Super Bowl champion Ravens.
Despite both teams having locked up playoff berths, neither coach plans to take this contest lightly.
“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.”
Lewis doesn’t want to lose any momentum after his team secured its first back-to-back playoff appearances since 1981-82.
“The only thing that is at stake is you go out and play to win the game every time we go,” Lewis said. “That’s important.”