CINCINNATI (AP) – AJ McCarron overcame a rough start and kept the Bengals in contention for a playoff bye.
McCarron threw a pair of touchdown passes Sunday, rallying Cincinnati to a sloppy 24-16 victory over the Baltimore Ravens that left their playoff seeding and matchup up to the later games.
The Bengals (12-4) matched the best record in franchise history – they also won 12 games during the 1981 and 1988 seasons when they reached the Super Bowl.
The AFC North champions wasted a chance to clinch the No. 2 seed and an opening-round bye when they lost in Denver 20-17 on Monday night, ending it with McCarron’s fumble on a snap. The Broncos could clinch a bye against San Diego later Sunday.
The Ravens (5-11) finished a season that went sour early with close losses and more injuries than any other team in the league. They upset Pittsburgh the previous week, but couldn’t knock off another division rival.
Jeremy Hill ran for 96 yards and put the Bengals in control by breaking through the line for a 38-yard score on a fourth-and-1 play in the third quarter.
The Bengals wrapped up one of their most successful regular seasons in front of 57,254 fans, their smallest crowd of the season at Paul Brown Stadium. They’re hoping to get Andy Dalton back during the playoffs. He broke his right thumb during a loss to Pittsburgh on Dec. 13, and it’s unclear how long it will take for the fracture to heal.
Dalton was still wearing a cast during the week, but did agility drills on the side of the field during practices.
McCarron made his third career start in Dalton’s place – his first at Paul Brown Stadium – and did enough to get the win. He didn’t have any problems with his sore left wrist, injured while trying to recover his game-ending fumble in Denver.
The Bengals got a scare when McCarron grabbed his left knee and was slow getting up in the third quarter after being tackled while throwing a pass. McCarron stayed in the game. He finished 17 of 27 for 160 yards with three sacks and a 103.9 passer rating.
The Bengals have been trying to get McCarron ready to start in the playoffs. His inexperience showed at the outset on Sunday when he failed to spot open receivers and was off-target on throws, resulting in four straight punts.
A pass interference penalty set up his 22-yard touchdown pass to Eifert, his 13th scoring catch of the season. Vontaze Burfict’s interception at the Baltimore 33-yard line set up McCarron’s 5-yard touchdown throw to A.J. Green for a 14-9 lead.
Hill’s longest run of the season – his previous best was only 17 yards – on the fourth-down play put the Bengals in control midway through the third quarter.
Ryan Mallett made his second start for the Ravens and went 30 of 56 for 292 yards against a defense that gives up a lot of yards, but had allowed the fewest points in the league. His 2-yard touchdown pass cut it to 24-16 with 1:47 to go, but he threw his second interception with 24 seconds left.
The Bengals failed to convert a third-down play, going 0 for 9, and matched their season high with 11 penalties. It was the first time Cincinnati won a game without converting a third-down play since 1995, according to STATS.