Using the franchise's No. 1 scoring defense of all-time and a revived running game that rolled up 145 yards, the 12-4 Bengals tied the team record for victories with a 24-16 win over the Ravens in Sunday's Paul Brown Stadium regular-season finale.
The Bengals wanted to win and put pressure on Denver since a Broncos' loss would give the Bengals a bye next week. Backup quarterback Andy Dalton got it done with a workman-like 103.9 passer rating derived from 17 of 27 passing for 160 yards and two TD passes.
But Peyton Manning rescued the Broncos to make the Bengals the third seed and they're waiting to hear when they host the Steelers next weekend.
The Ravens didn't score a touchdown until 1:47 left in the game as the Bengals secured the record for the fewest points allowed by a Bengals defense (279) in a 16-game season. Running back Cedric Peerman then jumped on the Ravens' on-side kick and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga picked off Ravens quarterback Ryan Mallet with 24 seconds left to end it with the help of a Wallace Gilberry rush. Mallett threw it 56 times, the fourth most ever against the Bengals, and he hit 30. But it was just for 5.2 yards per on 292 yards. Two interceptions left him with a 59.5 passer rating.
Bengals running back Jeremy Hill, racing for 96 yards on the day, saved his longest run of the year for one of the biggest plays of the year when he broke a fourth-and-one for a 38-yard touchdown against the stingy Ravens defense to give the Bengals a 21-9 lead with 6:55 left in the third quarter.
Mike Nugent finished off the Bengals' scoring with a 52-yard field goal with 4:06 left in the game.
The run was set up by Hill's backfield mate, Giovani Bernard and his 12-yard run behind right guard Kevin Zeitler on a dump pass that he bounced outside. On third-and-one from the Ravens 38 and leading 14-9, McCarron tried a play-action bootleg pass, but the deep ball wasn't available and McCarron threw it away. That set up fourth-and-one and Hill set up behind rookie backup tackle Jake Fisher, in his first game wearing No. 44 as an H-Back in place of the injured Ryan Hewitt.
Hill followed Fisher to his left, where Fisher took out Ravens inside linebacker Daryl Smith and Hill dashed out of that hole, cut to the right and was gone. The Bengals running game came out big against a Baltimore run defense ranked seventh in the league giving up just 3.9 yards per rush. After Hill's run was in the books, the Bengals had 115 yards on 15 carries with Hill getting 70 of them on seven carries. They finished at 5.4 yards per with Hill getting 96 yards on 16 carries and Bernard adding 36 on six carries. It was the Bengals' most yards rushing against Baltimore since they got 146 in a PBS win in 2009, 117 from Cedric Benson.
They used the running game to counter a hellacious showing on third down. The Bengals went 0-for-9 while Mallett converted 12 of his 20 third downs and got their first win without converting a third down since the 1995 opener.
But the Bengals, needing to hold the Ravens to 20 points or less to set a club record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season, were tough when they needed it most. They came up with two fourth-down stops and two interceptions in the second half, none bigger than WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict's pick on the first drive of the second half when he made a diving interception on the sideline at the Ravens 33 and Baltimore leading, 9-7.
McCarron then conspired with the greatness of five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green to give the Bengals 14-9 lead less than four minutes into the second half.
McCarron hung up a ball up on the sideline at the Ravens 5 and it looked like Green had no shot to get it. But he somehow got both feet in even as cornerback Shareece Wright drilled him for a 12-yard gain. Green, who had 227 yards against the Ravens back in September and had just one target for 10 yards in the first half, did it again on the next snap. McCarron lofted the fade over Wright to Green's outside, where only Green could get it. And Green did get it, and then pulled off another ballet move getting both feet down in time for his 10th touchdown of the season and the 14-9 lead.
In his second start as the Ravens quarterback, Mallett bedeviled the Bengals on third down and then put together a drive in the final 1:49 of the first half that gave the Ravens a 9-7 lead on Justin Tucker's last-play 49-yard field goal. The Ravens started that last drive on the 15, but working against a minimal rush Mallet found five different receivers in the short drive with wide receivers Kamar Aiken (17 yards) and Jeremy Bulter (16) getting open underneath while tight end Maxx Williams (five catches for 52 yards in the half) added another 10-yarder. On third-and-eight with 18 seconds left, the Bengals had a shot for a stop but Mallett found running back Javorius Allen over the middle for a first down to set up Tucker.
Mallett, 14 of 25 for 145 yards in the half, had the slight edge in his battle with McCarron in his third Bengals start. But McCarron, 10 of 17 for 115 yards, got the lone TD of the half on a 22-yard strike to tight end Tyler Eifert that gave the Bengals a 7-6 lead with 1:49 left in the half. Eifert, his first game back since a first-quarter concussion on Dec. 13, scored his 13th touchdown of the season when he beat cornerback Jimmy Smith inside and safety Will Allen closed too late.
It was Hill's pass interference penalty working on wide receiver Marvin Jones that gave the drive life and a 13-yard check-down pass to Hill, followed by his eight-yard run on a draw set up Eifert.
The game was advertised an AFC North shove match and a flat Bengals offense couldn't seize the battle of field position after punting four times the first time four times they had the ball and fell behind the Ravens 3-0 early in the second quarter.
The Ravens pinned the Bengals on their 4 late in the first quarter and on third-and-four McCarron took a shot at wide receiver Rex Burkhead running down the left sideline with a step on Ravens inside linebacker C.J. Mosley. But the ball was a little short and bounced off Mosley's shoulder pad. McCarron couldn't get into a groove, missing four of his first seven passes for just 24 yards as the Bengals were 0-for-3 on third down in the first quarter working against a Ravens defense satisfied with rushing four and dropping seven into coverage
The Ravens took advantage of the field position. They got the ball at the Bengals 48 and after a 19-yard pass to Aiken, the Ravens ran it to the 10 on two stretch plays by Allen. After coming up with a sack on the first series, defensive tackle Geno Atkins blew up another Allen run for three-yard loss. On third down Mallett got away with one as he was chased by Gilberry. Mallett threw it right to Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick on the sideline at the 4 and it looked like had a lot of room. But he dropped the pick and Tucker hit a 28-yard field goal with 12:56 left to give the Ravens a 3-0 lead with 12:56 left in the first half.
The Bengals, whose first two drives were wiped out by penalties, then suffered a stunning spate of them on the next drive. The Bengals drove to their 41, but left guard Clint Boling was called for a hold. On second and 20, McCarron hit wide receiver Mohamed Sanu over the middle for a 16-yard gain, but Eifert was called for a hold to go with right guard Kevin Zeitler being illegally down field. On second-and-30 McCarron hit wide receiver Marvin Jones for 23 yards over the middle, but on third-and-seven, Green and Zeitler both jumped to make it third-and-12, where McCarron was a sitting duck for a sack on a Mosely blitz.
Meanwhile, the Bengals couldn't get off the field on third down with the Ravens 7-for-11 in the half. On third-and-five and on third-and-four, Mallett found the rookie tight end Williams for first downs over the middle. On the second one, the Bengals tried a zone blitz, dropping Gilberry on one side and blitzing from the other side, but it didn't get there.
Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther appeared to be bringing more heat than usual and he brought Burfict on the blitz. Mallett got rid of it and found Butler in the flat, where he bobbed and weaved for a 32-yard TD that was all run and no catch. But it came back because Butler took the ball off the ground and it was incomplete. Tucker drilled a 50-yarder for the Ravens' 6-0 lead late in the first quarter.
The Bengals had a few good plays on that first series, including an 11-screen pass to Eifert, which was his last play back on Dec. 13 before he left with a concussion. After Fisher was called for a false start on his first snap as a fullback lined up in front of Hill, he lined up a wing back and they pulled the extra right tackle, Cedric Ogbuehi, along with Zeitler, and Hill shot off the left side for a 10-yard gain. But on second-and-five, McCarron gunned a check-down pass too hot for Hill and on third-and-five McCarron tried to fit it into Green with a short throw over the middle, but Green was blanketed.
On their second series the Bengals got another seven-yard catch from Eifert and Sanu quarterbacked the Wild Cat for a 10-yard run off a zone read. But McCarron couldn't connect on another hot throw over the middle. He scrambled for 16 yards on third-and-nine, but it was negated by left tackle Andrew Whitworth's holding call working against former Bengals linebacker Chris Carter and the drive was gone.
The Ravens' first drive ended on Atkins' 11th sack of the season and only one for the Bengals on the day when Mallett pumped and then found himself lying on his back. On the next drive Mallett converted a couple of third downs, the last one when the Bengals dropped left end Carlos Dunlap into coverage on a zone blitz and Aiken got the first down working on cornerback Leon Hall at the Bengals 41. But a false start penalty blew up that drive. PREGAME NOTES: As the 11-4 Bengals lined up for Sunday's regular-season finale at Paul Brown Stadium against the 5-10 Ravens, they were all in to try and secure that franchise-best 12thwin. They de-activated only one starter, quarterback Andy Dalton (thumb), and welcomed back starting tight end Tyler Eifert (concussion) and starting safety George Iloka after two-game absences.
It's not clear if they would start or how much they or any of the other starters would play, but head coach Marvin Lewis has made it clear they're trying to win the game with the hope of grabbing a playoff bye with a Denver loss to visiting San Diego in a 4:25 p.m. game. They've already assured themselves a berth at PBS next weekend in a fifth straight Wild Card appearance.
The day and time of next weekend's Wild Card games are to be announced at halftime of Sunday night's NFC North title game (8:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) between the Vikings and Packers.
One starter that didn't get the call was middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, replaced in the lineup by Vincent Rey. It doesn't appear to be because of injury since Maualuga wasn't on this week's injury report.
Joining Dalton on the inactive list was fullback Ryan Hewitt (knee) and his place as the H-Back who can also line up at tight end has been taken by rookie backup tackle Jake Fisher, exchanging his No. 74 for 44.
As expected rookie defensive lineman Marcus Hardison, a fourth-round pick out of Arizona State, ended up being inactive for all 16 games. Rookie wide receiver Mario Alford, a seventh-rounder out of West Virginia, was inactive Sunday for the 15th time. With Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins back to work at PBS, the Bengals sat tackle Pat Sims and right end Will Clarke was inactive for the fourth time in the last five games after he played in the first 11.
With No. 1 pick Cedric Ogbuehi getting more and more time as the extra lineman (16 snaps in Denver Monday night), veteran backup tackle Eric Winston was inactive for the second straight game and third in the last five.