It was a long, winding road with plenty of twists and turns, but with Sunday's 24-16 win against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Ravens have won the AFC North for the first time in the John Harbaugh era. The Ravens were on the ropes late in the fourth quarter. But the team's most valuable players, Terrell Suggs and Ray Rice, sealed the win with a forced fumble and another long touchdown run, respectively. Now the ailing Ravens can rest.
Here are my quick-hits thoughts after the 12-4 Ravens beat the 9-7 Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday:
1. We in the Baltimore media were asked to pick the team MVP in the week leading up to the Bengals game, but Rice's performance on Sunday might have changed a few votes if polling for the award was this week. He rushed for 191 yards on 24 carries. Rice's 70-yard touchdown run in the first quarter ensured that the Ravens wouldn't have to play from behind in this challenging road game, and his 51-yard touchdown run with about six minutes left put the game away. With 1,364 yards, Rice will finish second behind Maurice Jones-Drew for the rushing title in 2011 -- not too shabby for a player in his contract year. Give this man a contract extension.
2. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was critical of Cam Cameron's play-calling this past week, and the offensive coordinator defended getting conservative in the Week 16 win over the Cleveland Browns, saying that at times the situation calls for playing it safe late. That was the case in the second half against the Bengals. Taking the air out of the ball proved to be a winning formula, but not without some anxious moments down the stretch. Flacco was solid, though, in the wind in Cincinnati, completing 15 of 19 passes for 130 yards and a touchdown.
3. The Ravens defense started to get gassed down the stretch, but overall, they did a fine job against Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green, who was held to just two catches. But there is going to be chatter about Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed as they showed their age during the win. Even fans punch-drunk on the purple drank can see that Lewis is a liability in pass coverage, and Reed clearly is afraid to make tackles head-on -- see Bernard Scott's rushing touchdown -- presumably because of the neck injury that cost him six games a season ago. That being said, with a bye week to rest up and with the playoffs starting at M&T Bank Stadium, they might not get a better chance to go out on top than they will this season.
4. Dennis Pitta stepped up for the Ravens on Sunday, snatching six passes for 62 yards and a touchdown (it was a heck of a throw by Flacco on that touchdown). Fellow tight end Ed Dickson is a great athlete and he is more of a big-play threat than Pitta. But Pitta's role in this offense will continue to grow thanks to his reliable hands and his ability to pick up yards after the catch by putting his head down and bowling over defenders.
5. How good is the AFC North? The Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers both finished 12-4, and the Bengals, with Dalton and Green leading the way this season (and beyond), have an excellent chance of making it through to the divisional round. And though the Browns won just four games this season, they have quality young talent on defense and high draft picks to bring in playmakers on offense. The Ravens really earned their title.
6. Thanks for the kicks last week, Shayne Graham, but I'm taking Billy Cundiff at M&T Bank Stadium all day.
7. Marshal Yanda being in the lineup was huge for the Ravens. He had the key block on Rice's first touchdown run. You have to figure the Pro Bowl right guard will be back to full strength after two weeks of inactivity.
8. Congrats to Ricky Williams, who passed the 10,000-yard rushing milestone against the Bengals. Brought in as a free agent, Williams got the job done in 2011, rushing for 444 yards and two touchdowns on 108 carries.
9. Suggs had a sack to finish the season with 14 sacks and his seven forced fumbles -- the final one coming when he swatted the ball out of Jermaine Gresham's grasp in the fourth quarter -- are a franchise record. But the Ravens won't make it to the Super Bowl without a pass rush. To win it all, it has to be their biggest strength.