Looking to secure their first AFC North Division Championship since 2006 with a victory, the Baltimore Ravens traveled to Cincinnati to take on the Bengals in front of a mostly-Bengal crowd that had trouble selling out the game earlier in the week. Not to mention, a loyal legion of Ravens fans making the trip to the Queen City for the New Year’s Day tilt, but also by Pittsburgh Steelers fans who made the trip to Cincinnati – buying up a number of tickets the Bengals could not sell to their own fans – hell bent on seeing the possibility of the Ravens choking away their grasp of the division lead.

But it was never to be.

The Ravens went to their strength, running the football effectively and the defense made stops when called upon, leading to a 24-16 victory at Paul Brown Stadium in front of 63,439 fans. The game felt like a playoff game and the Ravens treated it as such, clinching their third AFC North title in team history. The Ravens secured the much-needed first-round bye and a home playoff game – a first in the John Harbaugh era – something that both he and Ravens players stated before the season was important to them.


Grading the Ravens 24-16 victory over the Bengals

Quarterback: B

Joe Flacco was efficient in the game, completing 15 of 19 passes for 130 yards and a TD. He made safe throws and didn’t turn the ball over. He looked in sync with his receivers for the most part, especially to the TE’s Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta. He looked for both throughout the game and they came through for Flacco. Pitta was the recipient of Flacco’s lone touchdown – his 10th of the season in the red zone – a superb throw in the corner of the end zone that Pitta was able to get both feet inbounds for.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, playoff time, and the Ravens should look to this game to see Joe doesn’t need to throw 30-35 passes for him to be effective on most days.


Running Backs: A+

Ray Rice capped off a great regular season, rushing for 191 yards and two rushing touchdowns. He showed great burst through the hole on his career-long, 70-yard TD run on the first possession of the game. He has fresh looking legs for it now being the month of January, a testament to the Ravens game plan of using backup RB Ricky Williams to spell Rice on occasion.

Williams, meanwhile, ran for 28 yards on six carries and they’ll rely on him even more so now that the cold-weather is here to stay. Ricky went over the 10,000 yard mark for his career in the game, the 26th player in NFL history to do so.

There’s not much else that hasn’t already been said about FB Vonta Leach. He continues to maul defenders with straight-on blocking, his solid block on Bengals safety Chris Crocker helped to initially open the running lane for Rice to run through on his first TD.


Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: C+

Without WR Anquan Boldin, the Ravens continue to search for production to replace him. Torrey Smith played well, catching five passes for 33 yards. Smith helped out in run blocking as well as catching passes. Fellow WR Lee Evans was again a non-factor for the Ravens, dropping a beautiful pass from Flacco that went off his finger tips in the 2nd quarter. It’s been a season to forget for Evans, who came into the game only catching four passes.

Flacco’s safety blankets stepped up in Week 17. Dennis Pitta did it all in this game, lining up at wide receiver, in the slot, staying into block. He even caught the longest pass of his career, a 39-yard gain where he carried three Bengals defenders on his back before being tackled. It kind of looked like this classic clip (:50 seconds in).

Ed Dickson had one catch for 20 yards, nearly being decapitated by safety Reggie Nelson in the process. He’s done a better job of holding onto the football. The Ravens surely will get Boldin back for the playoffs, but Pitta and Dickson are going to be counted on to be contributors going forward.


Offensive Line: B

Having right guard Marshal Yanda back in the lineup helped the Ravens immediately on the opening drive when he threw a block on Bengals linebacker Ray Maualuga to spring Ray Rice on the first touchdown. He’s one of the toughest guys on the team, having an injury like that would shut most guys down, but not Yanda who is old-school. When the Ravens ran some stretch plays, tackles Michael Oher and Bryant McKinnie blocked well to help Ray Rice get to the outside.

The pass blocking was exceptional against a Bengals front seven that is pretty damn athletic, only allowing one sack on the day. The line gave Flacco the proper time to make some good throws.


Defensive Line: B

Defensive tackles Brandon McKinney, Terrence Cody and Pro Bowler, Haloti Ngata clogged up the middle and looked ferocious in run support. Cory Redding registered four total tackles and didn’t look affected by his sore ankle. Pernell McPhee didn’t have any tackles, but provided much needed pressure up the middle for the Ravens. The defensive line got a little more push up front in this game than in previous weeks.


Linebackers: B-

Ray Lewis recorded seven tackles in total and seems to be working himself back into form after the turf toe injury. If there’s one thing about Ray, its that you can never count him out. I said last week he may need to be off the field now on passing situations, but he looked quicker and tackled well on those plays in this game.

OLB Terrell Suggs had a strong game, his forced fumble late in the 4th quarter on Bengals TE Jermaine Gresham led to Ray Rice’s 2nd touchdown of the game, sealing it for the Ravens. Suggs also recorded the only sack of the game for the Ravens as they finally got some pressure on a QB for a change.


Secondary: B

Cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams tackled well and didn’t allow big plays to the Bengals big two WR’s Jerome Simpson and A.J. Green. Safety Bernard Pollard nearly had an interception, recorded five tackles and recovered the fumble caused by Terrell Suggs. For the third game in a row, safety Ed Reed has played poorly and missed a couple tackles. You have to wonder if injuries are beginning to hinder him.


Special Teams: D-

Kicker Billy Cundiff was healthy enough to kick this week for the Ravens, making his one field goal attempt of 42 yards, in addition to three extra points. The Ravens have to get better on covering kickoffs and punts and protecting punter Sam Koch who nearly had three punts blocked. This has been an all-season long issue for the Ravens, and a real concern for a team with the #2 seed in the AFC playoffs. This group needs to step it up to have success come playoff time.


Coaching: B

John Harbaugh got his men ready for this game, in what felt very much like a playoff game. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron balanced the offensive side of the ball well, knowing that in order for the Ravens to win, the running game needs to be effective. The defense did a terrific job of limiting both Jerome Simpson and A.J. Green who caught a combined seven passes for just 80 yards. That was the key to this game and coordinator Chuck Pagano had a scheme that worked well.


Final Take

The Ravens stuck to their guns, and ran the ball effectively against the Cincinnati Bengals, rushing for 221 total yards on the day. It was needed with the wind whipping around the stadium, gusting to nearly 40 mph at times. In the first half, the Ravens allowed just three-1st half points, and surrendered just one touchdown for the day, compared to the three they gave up to the Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium back on November 20th.

This is exactly the type of game-plan the Ravens will need to execute effectively to have a strong run to the Super Bowl this season. It’s simple, let Ray Rice and the offensive line run you to death and have Joe Flacco be the game manager with a strong arm to supplement it.

The Ravens will be home, where they’ve wanted to be all along. Now they’ll get that crucial bye week and await the results of what happens during Wild-Card Weekend, whether it will be the Houston Texans, Pittsburgh Steelers or the Denver Broncos coming to town. The bye week allows some of the injured Ravens players some extra time to heal.

On a cold day in Cincinnati, the Ravens had their eye on the prize and this time didn’t let it slip out of sight.


Follow me on Twitter: MattCLund

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