Bengals’ title means they’ve finally made it

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.

NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org