Football

Bengals earn wild-card spot thanks to tie-breaker

Baltimore's Ray Rice zoomed past Cincinnati defenders on his way to a 70-yard touchdown run in the first half. He added a 51-yard TD later in the game.
Baltimore's Ray Rice zoomed past Cincinnati defenders on his way to a 70-yard touchdown run in the first half. He added a 51-yard TD later in the game. AP

CINCINNATI — Samoans skipped Friday.

AFC wild-card contenders all but skipped New Year's Day.

Which worked out just fine for the Cincinnati Bengals, who lost 24-16 to the Baltimore Ravens but got in the playoffs anyway.

Samoa, after all, changed time zones across the international dateline. That moved the local calendar from Thursday to Saturday.

The complexity of the AFC wild-card race rivaled the time change, but a cast of Bengals, New York Jets, Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders all came up losers. Two of them came up winners anyway.

Denver backs in as AFC West champion, owning the tie-breaker with Oakland.

The Bengals (9-7), with the tie-breaker over Tennessee for the final wild-card berth, will open the playoffs Saturday at AFC South champion Houston.

"The No. 1 goal is to get an opportunity to be world champions," Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis said. "We still have that ahead of us, and we've got to keep playing better, obviously, in order to do that. That's the good thing."

The Bengals, backed by a sellout crowd of 63,439 in wind-swept Paul Brown Stadium, reached the playoffs for the third time in 21 years.

Perhaps no player appreciates that fact more than cornerback Nate Clements, a free-agent acquisition before this season. An 11-year pro, he has never made it to the post-season until now.

"I understand we have a young team. I've learned so much from these guys — as much as they've probably learned from me," Clements said. "And I'm honored to go to battle with these guys week in and week out.

"Definitely a long time coming. ... We definitely are going to embrace the joy and cherish the opportunity we have."

The Ravens (12-4, 6-0 AFC North) also had plenty at stake Sunday.

They earned their third AFC North title and a first-round bye in the playoffs.

"It's a great accomplishment to win this particular division," Coach John Harbaugh said. "I don't know how you could do it any better than winning it here against that football team with the effort (the Bengals) put in, and the crowd was incredible."

Ray Rice, who ran for two touchdowns in Baltimore's 31-24 win over the Bengals on Nov. 20, again played the role of human wrecking ball.

He ran 24 times for 191 yards, including scores of 70 and 51 yards. He also caught two passes for 8 yards, raising his league-leading scrimmage yards total to 2,068.

Joe Flacco completed 15 of 19 passes for 130 yards, including a 9-yard touchdown to Dennis Pitta.

Cincinnati, outgained 221-105 on the ground, got its only touchdown on a third-quarter 25-yard run by Brandon Scott.

Mike Nugent booted three field goals, setting franchise records for field goals (33) and points (132) in a season.

"I think it's awesome, with this team this year," Nugent said. "It's kind of funny because we didn't have the outcome we wanted today, but you've got to be happy to have the opportunity to get in the playoffs."

Andy Dalton, the first rookie quarterback not selected in the first round to start all 16 games for an NFL team, went 22-for-44 passing, good for 232 yards.

"It's kind of weird," Dalton said. "We obviously didn't get it done today, but we still have a chance. It's what we wanted at the beginning of the season. We wanted to come in and make the playoffs, because once you're in the playoffs, records up to this point don't matter."

Fellow rookie A.J. Green caught two balls for 26 yards. That pushed his club rookie record to 1,057 receiving yards, and his 65 grabs are just two shy of the record set in 1981 by Cris Collinsworth.

"We live to fight another day," Green said. "Another week to go out there and play with these guys. We've grown to be a family."

Baltimore scored on its first two possessions en route to a 17-3 halftime lead.

Rice ran for a 70-yard touchdown on the fourth play from scrimmage, and Billy Cundiff added a 42-yard field goal into 19 mph wind.

The Ravens also got Flacco's TD pass to Ritta with 11 seconds left in the half.

The Bengals got within 17-13 in the fourth quarter.

But Jermaine Gresham fumbled, leading to Rice's 51-yard score.

Nugent's 23-yard field goal with 2:39 left made it a one-score game, 24-16.

The Bengals got the ball on their 20 with 1:05 left.

They advanced to the Ravens 33, but three incompletions from their ended the game.

"A bittersweet day, I guess," Lewis said. "I know we've got the fight part right. There's no quit. But we've got to get the 'smart part' right for the first part of the game and not put ourselves behind."

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