Playoff pairings hinge on rematch

NFL: Bengals, Ravens could meet next week in postseason

By ASSOCIATED PRESS  • 
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Evan Vucci | Associated Press
Quarterback Joe Flacco has led Baltimore to four victories in a row over Cincinnati.

CINCINNATI — The Baltimore Ravens have studied their possible playoff pairings. The only thing for sure: Baltimore gets to play its first game at home as the AFC North champion.

The opponent? Too early to tell.

“We know all the scenarios,” running back Ray Rice said.

An intriguing one: If the Ravens win today at Paul Brown Stadium, there’s a chance they could play division rival Cincinnati in back-to-back weeks.

Their game today doesn’t mean a lot. Baltimore (10-5) wrapped up its second straight division title and its fifth consecutive playoff appearance by defeating the New York Giants 33-14 last week. The only thing to decide is the Ravens’ opponent in the first game.

If they win today and New England loses, it will be the Bengals (9-6), who have lost their past four games against the Ravens but wouldn’t be intimidated by facing a familiar team. Cincinnati is locked in as the sixth seed, also waiting to find out where it will go for the first round.

Could be Baltimore. Or New England. Or Houston. Or even Denver.

“We don’t know,” Bengals safety Chris Crocker said. “You have an inkling of who it may be. But you really focus on the Baltimore Ravens. They put a licking on us in the first game of the season.”< /p>

The Ravens defeated the Bengals 44-13 on a Monday night. The teams then took different paths to the playoffs — Baltimore won nine of its first 11 games, went into a slump on offense, changed coordinators, lost three straight games and finally nailed down the division title last week. Cincinnati opened 3-5 but has made the playoffs by winning six of its past seven on the strength of an emerging defense.

The final regular-season game represents a chance for both to fine-tune offenses that have plenty of room for improvement.

Baltimore’s has been so inconsistent that coach John Harbaugh fired coordinator Cam Cameron and elevated quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell for the past two games. Baltimore still looked out of sorts during a 34-17 home loss to Denver, its third straight defeat.

The offense had its best moments last week against the Giants, piling up a season-high 533 yards. Joe Flacco was sharp, passing for 309 yards and two touchdowns. Rice and Bernard Pierce each ran for more than 100 yards.

The focus today will be on Flacco, who is usually impressive against Cincinnati. Flacco has completed 71 percent of his passes in the past four games against the Bengals, with five touchdowns and two interceptions.

Cincinnati’s offense still is looking for a breakout game.

The Bengals managed only 14 yards rushing on 16 carries in a 13-10 loss at Pittsburgh last Sunday.

“We do have to try to establish some kind of running game getting into the playoffs,” offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. “It would be nice.”

The offense got off to a lousy start in Baltimore on Sept. 10, one of the worst season-opening drubbings in Bengals history. They have waited for the rematch.

“It just happens to be a team that beat us pretty good last time,” quarterback Andy Dalton said. “So we’ve got to come out and we’ve got to do everything we can to execute like we know we can. If we do that, I don’t think it will turn out anything like it did the first time.”

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