CINCINNATI (AP) — Bengals coach Marvin Lewis was so engrossed in his team’s ugly win that he had to ask about how the other playoff-related games turned out. Even before he’d heard all the scores, he knew where it was headed.
“We play Pittsburgh?” Lewis said.
Yep. Again. Back at the scene of a season-turning loss.
AJ McCarron overcame a slow start and threw a pair of touchdown passes on Sunday, leading the Bengals to a 24-16 victory over the Baltimore Ravens. Then the AFC North champions waited to see if they’d get a first-round bye.
Uh-uh. Denver clinched it with a 27-20 victory over San Diego, leaving Cincinnati (12-4) to host the Steelers (10-6) on Saturday at 8:15 p.m.
And oh, there’s so much history at play.
The Steelers came to Paul Brown Stadium on Dec. 13 and won 33-20, with Andy Dalton breaking his right thumb while making a tackle on an interception return. McCarron took over and threw two interceptions. The teams got into a scuffle on the field before the game, and had numerous personal fouls throughout it.
“It’s a great matchup and a great rivalry and we are excited,” said McCarron, who is 2-1 as a starter in Dalton’s place. “We are just excited about getting to play in the playoffs, especially a game at home, and to make the most of it.”
The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since the 1990 season, the sixth-longest streak of postseason futility in NFL history. They’ve lost in the first round each of the past four seasons.
The Steelers and Bengals have faced each other in the playoffs one other time, also in the first round at Paul Brown Stadium during the 2005 season. Carson Palmer suffered a severe knee injury on his first pass, and the Steelers pulled away to a 31-17 win.
The Bengals’ latest chance for that long-awaited playoff win comes during another visit from their Ohio River rival.
“We’ve been there before,” Lewis said. “It’s time to right the ship. You know — exorcism.”
It’s unclear whether McCarron will be getting his second shot at the Steelers. Dalton is scheduled to have his broken thumb examined again on Monday to see if the bone is healed. At the moment, it’s McCarron’s team.
“It’s going to be a fun week,” said McCarron, who won two national championships at Alabama.
The Bengals 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 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.
McCarron made his first start 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 on Monday night.
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, no interceptions and a 103.9 passer rating.
“Everything wasn’t perfect today, that’s the way it’s going to be sometimes,” said McCarron, who hasn’t thrown an interception in his three starts. “When the other quarterback turns the ball over and you don’t, you put yourself in position to win.”
A pass interference penalty set up his 22-yard touchdown pass to Tyler 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.
Notes: The crowd of 57,254 was the smallest this season at Paul Brown Stadium. … Cincinnati has won its past five against Baltimore, its longest winning streak in the series. … 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 when they beat Indianapolis 24-21 in OT, according to STATS. They also were 0 for 9 in that one. … Ravens S Will Hill hurt his back in the first half and didn’t return.