CINCINNATI — The Ravens boarded their plane with commemorative championship caps and headed for the only place they want to be at this time of the year.
Homeward bound. And very happy.
Baltimore clinched the AFC North title with a 24-16 victory over Cincinnati on Sunday, completing a perfect run through one of the NFL's toughest divisions. The Ravens finished tied with Pittsburgh at 12-4 but had the tiebreaker with their two head-to-head wins.
The Bengals made it, too, getting every bit of help they needed right up to the end. Cincinnati (9-7) didn't beat a playoff-caliber team all season, going 0-7, but advanced to the postseason when the Jets and the Broncos also lost on Sunday.
Baltimore hadn't won the division since 2006, making the playoffs the last three years as a wild card and coming up short of the Super Bowl. The Ravens made it an overriding goal to get home-field advantage this time around. Their win on Sunday left them with the conference's No. 2 seed and a first-round bye followed by a game at home, where they are 8-0.
"Especially in the way we did it, to go undefeated in a division that has three playoffs teams is a pretty big accomplishment," said Joe Flacco, who was 15 of 19 for 130 yards with a touchdown.
Ray Rice had touchdown runs of 70 and 51 yards, and Baltimore's defense finished it off by knocking down Andy Dalton's desperation pass into the end zone as the clock ran out. Ravens players raised their helmets in celebration, ran off the field and donned championship shirts and caps.
"This is a great achievement, especially when you consider whatever doubters we had," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "We swept our whole division. Now the world comes to Baltimore."
The Bengals learned during the final seconds that they had secured their third playoff berth in the last 21 years despite the loss.
No hats or shirts for the Bengals, though. They exchanged congratulatory hand slaps with a few fans as they left the field, and that was it for the celebration.
"It's kind of weird," said Dalton, who was 22 of 44 for 232 yards with no interceptions or touchdowns. "Obviously we didn't get it done today, but we still have a chance."
Cincinnati will play next Saturday at Houston, which clinched the AFC South title by beating the Bengals 20-19 at Paul Brown Stadium on Dec. 11. Dalton is 3-0 at Reliant Stadium, where he played two games in high school and one at TCU.
With Paul Brown packed to capacity with Bengals fans for the first time all season, Rice made the biggest plays on a blustery afternoon that made it tough to throw. He had a career-best 70-yard touchdown run on the fourth play.
Rice also broke a 51-yard touchdown run on a third-and-1 play with 5:41 to go, essentially finishing Cincinnati's chances of yet another big comeback. Rice finished with 191 yards on 24 carries and set a club record with his 15th touchdown of the season.
"To be able to win the division on the road to secure a home playoff game, the feeling in that locker room was like no other," Rice said.
Baltimore's defense had a hand in it, too. Linebacker Terrell Suggs hit tight end Jermaine Gresham after a catch, jarring the ball loose. Three plays later, Rice went 51 yards to put the Ravens on the verge of a title.
Suggs sacked Dalton, forcing the Bengals to settle for a field goal on their next possession. Cincinnati got the ball back at its 20 with 1:05 to go and no timeouts left, but came up short on Dalton's final pass into the end zone.
"This feels good," Suggs said. "You just have to take it in."
During that final, futile drive, the Broncos' score was shown on the videoboard, drawing a loud cheer from the crowd of 63,439. Some of the Bengals saw it, too. Others didn't know what had happened.
"I heard the crowd and I asked somebody, 'Was there a penalty on that play?'" cornerback Nate Clements said. "He said, 'Denver lost. We're in.' I still wasn't sure. Then we came into the locker room and they confirmed it."
The Bengals stayed in playoff contention by pulling off comebacks, overcoming double-digit deficits in the second half three times. They put themselves in position for another one when Bernard Scott broke a 25-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter. Mike Nugent's 46-yard field goal cut it to 17-13 early in the fourth quarter, but Rice put it away.
Notes: The Ravens also won the division in 2003 and 2006. ... Rice joined Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk as the only players with 1,000 yards rushing and 700 receiving in more than one season. ... Suggs has a career-high 14 sacks, one shy of Peter Boulware's club record from 2001. ... Ricky Williams carried six times for 28 yards and became the 26th player in NFL history to run for 10,000 yards in his career. ... K Billy Cundiff was back after missing one game with a sore left calf. He made a 42-yard field goal into the wind. ... It's the third time in the last four years that an AFC North team went 6-0 in the division — Pittsburgh did it in 2008 and Cincinnati in 2009. ... Bengals K Mike Nugent made three field goals, giving him a team-record 33 for the season. ... The Bengals haven't won a playoff game since 1990.