CINCINNATI — — For the first time since 2007, Baltimore will host an NFL playoff game.
A tense 24-16 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, highlighted by touchdown runs of 70 and 51 yards by Ray Rice, gave the Ravens the AFC North title — the third division championship in team history — and resulted in them clinching the conference's second seed, a first-round bye and a second-round home playoff game.
Across the city, fans decked in their usual purple flocked to bars. They hung on every play, their emotions as tangled as those of the coaches and players.
"We all felt it right here, right in the pit of our stomachs. Our football team really wanted to win this game," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We really needed to win this game. I think it's the best division in football. It's not even close. For our team to sweep the division and to go undefeated at home, I'm just so proud of these guys for that. This is one championship. We still have two more that we're shooting for, the conference championship obviously and a world championship."
For now, the Ravens, who finished the regular season at 12-4 and won all six games in their division for the first time in team history, will have to settle for a much-needed week off, and then a second-round matchup at M&T Bank Stadium, where they went 8-0 this season. It's their first division title since the 2006 season, which was also the last time the Ravens had a home playoff game.
Will Doering of Baltimore knows playoff football will change the city and has yearned for its return. In the third quarter of the game, it looked like he could finally get his wish — and the 27-year-old said he couldn't wait to see the city support its team.
"It's going to be a completely different atmosphere," said Doering, who was watching the game at Stalking Horse in Federal Hill.
Near Doering stood Shaun Downey, who called Baltimore "a happier place to be when there's a home football game." He even notices it at the high school where he teaches.
"The students are happier, the teachers are happier, the parents are happier," said Downey, 32, who lives in Middle River.
Downey also works as a bouncer at the bar and said a home playoff game would be a boon to local businesses.
"It's another weekend of people coming into town, plus the regulars," he said.
The outcome of Sunday's game was in doubt until the final seconds, as Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton drove his team down to the Ravens' 33-yard line with 11 seconds to go but couldn't find a receiver on two final throws.
The Ravens, who had trouble all year winning on the road, sprinted off the sidelines to celebrate.
The Bengals, who thought they needed a victory to make the playoffs, wound up getting in anyway, thanks to losses by the New York Jets, Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos. They'll start the playoffs 4:30 next Saturday at the AFC South champion Houston Texans.
The Ravens, meanwhile, will enjoy the first round at home as several of their banged up players will get an important week of rest.
"It was obviously pretty exciting," said Ravens fourth-year quarterback Joe Flacco, who has already played in seven playoff games in his career, none of them at home. "We haven't won a division since I've been here. Just to do it the way we did, to go undefeated in a division that has three playoff teams was pretty big."
Back in Federal Hill, the sounds of shouts and cheers from the packed bars spilled outside.
At Mother's, Caren Pozanek of Reisterstown watched the game with her husband and son.
"Hopefully we can win this and have home-field advantage, because we're not so good on the road," she said during the game, "but we're doing pretty well today."
"Our city supports our team more than anyone," said her husband, Keith, 48. "That's why we're so great at home."
The Pozaneks are "a big Ravens family," Caren Pozanek said, adding that her 18-year-old daughter is a die-hard Ray Rice fan.
On a cold and windy day at Paul Brown Stadium, Flacco happily played a supporting role, throwing one 9-yard touchdown pass to Dennis Pitta to give the Ravens a two-touchdown lead just before halftime, but otherwise handing the ball off to Rice.
Rice finished with 191 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries, setting a single-season team record with 15 touchdowns. His 70-yard touchdown run, sprung by a great play by right guard Marshal Yanda, who wasn't even expected to play in the game because of injuries, came on the Ravens' fourth play from scrimmage.
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Rice's 51-yard run, which came three plays after linebacker Terrell Suggs stripped Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham of the football with the Bengals attempting to go in for a go-ahead score, gave the Ravens a 24-13 lead with 5:41 to go.
There were some anxious moments that followed, but the Ravens reveled in securing exactly what they had talked about since the start of the season: the division championship, a first-round bye and at least one home playoff game.
"This is very humbling, just because of the things that you go through during the course of the season — the highs, the lows, the ups and the downs," said Rice. "To be able to go on the road to secure a home playoff game, the feeling in that locker room was like no other. I can only imagine what the city of Baltimore is doing right now. It's amazing."