The Ravens did what they needed to do in winning in Cincinnati for the first time since 2006 on Sunday to bring home the AFC North title and earn a playoff bye. It was the Ravens’ first AFC North crown since 2006, and the win secured their first ever 6-0 division mark. While it was another team effort, with big contributions in the form of turnovers from the defense and key kicks by special teams, Ray Rice, Vonta Leach, and the Ravens’ offensive line were the true heroes that brought home the huge victory for Baltimore.
Rice started the festivities off with a bang, taking his second carry (the Ravens’ fourth offensive snap) 70-yards for a touchdown and an early 7-0 lead. It was reminiscent of his big run in the 2009 AFC Wild Card game in New England, as he simply exploded through the line and then proceeded to run away from the pursuing defenders.
After a Bengals’ 3-and-out, a 39-yard pass on 3rd-and-1 from Joe Flacco to tight end Dennis Pitta, during which Pitta picked up about 20 yards after contact, dragging several Bengals with him set up a 42-yard Billy Cundiff field goal that staked the good guys to a 10-0 first quarter lead. Cundiff was kicking for the first time since Week 15 in San Diego, and many Ravens fans thought the team should have again went with Shayne Graham, who spent the majority of his career in Cincy. Cundiff, though, braved the 20-35 mile per hour winds and came through on that, his only 3-point attempt of the afternoon.
Marvin Lewis’s squad would close the gap to 10-3, before a key sequence that had a huge impact on the outcome of this contest.
Facing 3rd-and-1 from their own 38 yard line, the Bengals ran running back Cedric Benson up the middle. Benson was hit by Cory Redding and appeared to be stopped for little to no gain. However, the officials marked the ball well past the 39-yard line, giving the Bengals an apparent fresh set of downs.
John Harbaugh wisely challenged the play, and the spot of the ball was surprisingly (not because it was incorrect, but just because it isn’t common to see a spot moved that far) re-spotted well short of the sticks, forcing Cincy to punt.
The punt was a beauty by Harris, and appeared to be downed at about the 1-foot-line of the Ravens, which would have put them in a horrible position. However, the Bengals player that downed the punt slid into the end zone in the process of downing it, resulting in a touchback instead. Given this much-improved field position, the Ravens had some room to go to work in building on their lead.
Aided by not one, not two, but THREE Bengals penalties (at least two of which were questionable, at best) that gave them first downs, the Ravens would ultimately capitalize on a gorgeous Flacco-to-Pitta 9-yard touchdown with only 11 seconds left in the first half.
It was a situation where the Ravens had about five breaks go their way in a span of just over six minutes. The key thing was, though, unlike so many times in the past, they were able to fully take advantage of these breaks in building a 17-3 halftime lead.
In the second half, Cam Cameron and the Ravens’ offense attempted to take the air out of the ball and simply sit on the two-touchdown lead, running on seven of their first 11 plays following the break. However, a 25-yard score by Cincy running back Bernard Scott – on which Ed Reed unforgivably attempted to tackle the ball instead of the runner when he could have stopped Scott for a short gain – put the pressure back on the Ravens’ O to put some points on the board. After managing only a field goal over the final 30 minutes in Week 16 against Cleveland, it was looking like more of the same and another potential second-half collapse.
The Bengals pulled to within 17-16 and appeared to be driving for their first potential lead of the day, moving from their own 20 to the Ravens’ 43 on five plays with just over seven minutes remaining.
It was then that the Ravens’ Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Terrell Suggs – quiet on the day to that point – came up with the kind of huge play that Baltimore defenders have been making for the last decade-plus. Tight end Jermaine Gresham took a screen pass from Andy Dalton and cut back inside. Suggs, who had started the play on the other side of the field from Gresham, came all the way across the formation to tackle the huge tight end from behind and jar the ball loose. It was Suggs’ NFL-leading seventh forced fumble of the season, and finally – FINALLY – the Ravens were able to capitalize by falling on it. Bernard Pollard recovered it for B’More, and the Bengals’ comeback was – temporarily, at least – held off.
The Baltimore offense would still have to come up with a play though, and avoid giving the ball back to a Cincy offense that had clearly (just like during the game at M&T Bank Stadium earlier this year) found their rhythm in the second half and was gashing a tired Ravens’ defense.
Who else but Ray Rice to answer the call?
Three plays after the fumble, the Ravens faced a 3rd-and-1, and were in danger of suffering a quick 3-and-out to give Dalton and co. another shot. The NFL’s leader in yards from scrimmage had other ideas though, as he took the handoff, quickly picked up enough for the first down, and then juked the Bengals’ safety out of his jock en route to a 51-yard touchdown, his second 50+ yard score of the evening.
The Bengals again drove deep into Ravens’ territory, but were forced to kick a field goal to close to within 24-16, thanks in part to a key sack by – you guessed it – Suggs.
With over two minutes to play and holding two timeouts, Marvin Lewis elected to kick the ball deep rather than try an onside kick. A false start on first down by Marshal Yanda appeared to doom the Ravens from the get-go, but Rice would again come to the rescue. Not only did he pick up 16 yards on 1st-and-15, but he showed great awareness and football IQ in not “Marion Barber-ing” it by running out of bounds. Rice stayed in bounds, forcing the Bengals to start burning timeouts. Although the Ravens were unable to pick up the second first down that would have sealed the game, the run and smart play by #27 had a huge hand in the fact that Dalton would ultimately take over from his own 20-yard line with only 1:05 to work with and no timeouts.
Cincy again made it interesting at the end, as it took two failed Hail Mary attempts to avoid a potential game-tying two-point conversion try.
Bengals fans will bellyache that Lardarius Webb should have been called for pass interference on the first of those two throws, but that wasn’t going to happen. Short of a blatant tackle, NFL referees hardly ever call PI on Hail Marys, and the fact is that A.J. Green was pushing and shoving just as much as Webb was.
The Bengals may have lost, but their lot in life remained unchanged – they still qualified for the postseason as a Wild Card, which is the best they could have hoped for entering the day.
Had the Ravens lost, they would be traveling to Denver for a Wild Card match up this weekend. Instead, they held on to give themselves a much needed two-week break until their next game, which will be played in Baltimore. The Ravens, of course, are undefeated at M&T Bank Stadium this year.
Baltimore managed to go 6-0 against what is unquestionable the strongest division in football, being the only division to send three teams to the playoffs. There is no chance that the Ravens will see the Bengals again unless both teams make it to the AFC Championship game. They could, however, see their arch rival Pittsburgh Steelers for the third time in two weeks if they win in Denver (they will) and if Cincy wins in Houston (could happen).
For now, though, the Ravens and their fans should sit back and enjoy the end result of one of the most successful regular seasons in franchise history.
Stay tuned to the Nest this week, as we look back on this up-and-down – but ultimately extremely successful – 2011 regular season campaign.