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Rested Bengals placed in prime playoff position

Rested Bengals placed in prime playoff position

CINCINNATI (AP) The Bengals returned from their weekend off with a big bounce in their playoff chances.

While they rested from their 34-13 win in Philadelphia on Thursday night, the Bengals (8-6) moved into position to get the second AFC wild card spot. Pittsburgh (7-7) slipped a game behind with its overtime loss in Dallas.

If they win out, the Bengals would make the postseason, something that seemed highly unlikely at midseason when they slogged through a four-game losing streak.

There's also a chance they could win the AFC North, although they need help. Baltimore (9-7) lost its third straight game over the weekend, taking the division title down to the last two weeks.

The Bengals finish with games at Pittsburgh and at home against Baltimore. The one next week could go a long way in deciding their playoff fate. If the Steelers win, the Bengals would have an identical record with Pittsburgh, but the Steelers would have the head-to-head tiebreaker because it would have swept the season series.

If they win the last two games, the Bengals would achieve a few noteworthy franchise breakthroughs. Cincinnati, after all, has gone to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons only once in a 44-year history. The 1981 team reached the Super Bowl and returned to the playoffs the next season.

The Bengals would also end their recent futility against the AFC North's top teams. The Bengals are 0-6 against the Steelers and Ravens over the last two seasons.

Cincinnati has lost a combined 10 straight games to the Steelers and Ravens, dating back to the 2009 season when the Bengals won their last division title. Last season, they reached the playoffs as a wild card team.

``We really haven't done anything yet,'' safety Chris Crocker said on Monday. ``I'm not going to say this is a defining moment because we play these guys twice a year. But this is very big, especially at the end of the season.

``We're picking up momentum. These teams are postseason teams every year. Pittsburgh and Baltimore are always in the postseason and they always go deep, so it's important for us to play well against them now in order to go in with some momentum if we do make the postseason.''

Pittsburgh beat Cincinnati 24-17 on Oct. 21 at Paul Brown Stadium, a game that the Bengals let slip away. They jumped out to a 14-3 lead in the first quarter, but managed just 105 yards of offense after going 80 yards on 15 plays to score a touchdown on the opening possession.

Quarterback Andy Dalton is 0-6 in his career against the Steelers and Ravens. He's completed less than 50 percent of his passes (40 of 82) against Pittsburgh and has never thrown for more than 170 yards in his three games.

Cincinnati has managed just 38 first downs against Pittsburgh with Dalton as the starting quarterback.

``It's us taking care of our business,'' right tackle Andre Smith said. ``They have a great defense and they're going to play their game and wait for people to mess up. It's up to us to go out there and compete and execute every single play.''

This will be the fifth time during coach Marvin Lewis' 10 seasons in Cincinnati that the teams have played in Week 12 or later with playoff ramifications on the line for the Bengals. Three of those previous four games were also at Heinz Field.

Cincinnati won on the road 24-20 in 2003 on Jon Kitna's late pass to Matt Schobel. The Bengals finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs.

They won again at Heinz Field in 2005, a 38-31 victory that put them in position to clinch the division title two weeks later. The Bengals then lost to the Steelers in the first round of the playoffs at Paul Brown Stadium, with Carson Palmer getting a torn knee on his first pass attempt.

Pittsburgh denied the Bengals a playoff berth in 2006 with a 23-17 overtime win at Paul Brown Stadium in the final game of the regular season.

Last season at Heinz Field, the Steelers routed the Bengals 35-7. Despite the loss, the Bengals still earned the No. 6 seed in the playoffs.

``They've been there, done that and played in many big games,'' Crocker said. ``We have to win this game.

``I don't know where we are if we don't win this game.''

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Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale welcomes second chance at role

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Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale welcomes second chance at role

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Don Martindale wondered if he would ever get a second chance to be an NFL defensive coordinator after his one-and-done disaster with the Denver Broncos in 2010.

The Broncos went 4-12 that season and gave up more points (29.4 per game) and yards (390.8) than any team in the league. Those miserable numbers, not surprisingly, cost Martindale his job.

He latched on with the Baltimore Ravens in 2012 as linebackers coach. After working diligently with several stars, including Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Zachary Orr and C.J. Mosley, the 54-year-old Martindale last week was promoted to defensive coordinator.

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To say he's pleased to be in charge of an NFL defense again would be a profound understatement.

"Without a doubt," Martindale said Thursday. "My family knows it. Everybody knows it. My players know it. I can't wait."

His performance in Denver eight years ago is hardly worth putting on a resume, but Martindale believes it was a worthwhile experience.

"Even though the stats were what they were, I was really proud with how we played," he said. "I'm glad I went through that process because I think that makes me a better coach today. It's like I tell my guys: You either win or you learn."

Martindale's new job with the Ravens carries the responsibility of overseeing a unit that has long been among the best in the NFL, thriving under notable leaders such as Marvin Lewis, Rex Ryan, Chuck Pagano and Dean Pees, who retired on Jan. 1.

"I've been preparing for this job all my life," Martindale said. "It's very humbling, but I understand the pressure and I look forward to the challenge."

Martindale takes over a defense that this season ranked 12th in net yards allowed, first in takeaways (34) and sixth in fewest points allowed (18.9). He has no plans to revamp the unit or change the philosophy, especially since head coach John Harbaugh stressed the need to retain continuity before launching his search for Pees' replacement.

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Martindale will, however, put his own stamp on the unit.

"I think personality-wise, and just calls, there's going to be some things that are the same. And then there are going to be sometimes where I'm going to pressure more," Martindale said. "I just think I have a more aggressive personality in calling the game. Sometimes, too aggressive. That's some of the things I've learned from the past."

His most daunting task will be finding a way to make the defense to come up big late in the game. In 2016, a fourth-quarter collapse in Pittsburgh cost Baltimore a playoff berth. This season, a fourth-down touchdown pass in the final minute by Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton bounced the Ravens from the postseason chase.

"Our mantra has always been to finish," Martindale said. "We're close. Obviously, the last two years, it's been the last play that's knocked us out of it. We are going to work diligently -- all of us -- with our package and situational football.

"That's going to be the next step, I think, that will skyrocket us. That's the big thing that I see. We were really good. Let's make it great."

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Offensive, defensive and rookie of the year awards for Ravens' 2017 season

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USA Today Sports

Offensive, defensive and rookie of the year awards for Ravens' 2017 season

The Ravens' season had it's ups and down, but out of it came some bright spots.

The defense continued to prove dominate and the offense found its groove during the second half of the season, but who stood out the most?

Offensive MVP: RB Alex Collins

Collins was a late preseason pickup after being cut by the Seattle Seahawks and Ravens fans are grateful they let him go. After new acquisition Danny Woodhead injured his hamstring on the first drive in Week 1 and Terrance West injured his calf Week 5 in Oakland, Allen emerged as a saving grace. He finished the season with 973 yards, six touchdowns and 212 attempts averaging 4.6 yards-per-carry. His longest rushing attempt was 50-yards against the Steelers in Week 4, and then in Week 14, rushed 120-yards on their defense. 

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Defensive MVP: OLB Terrell Suggs

This one was a toss up between Suggs and inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, but considering the level at which Sizzle is playing at in his 15th season, his 2017 performance is MVP worthy.

The 35-year old finished the season with 49 combined tackles, 12 assist, 11 sacks and four forced fumbles. Suggs ranks 11th in the league in sacks and was voted to his seventh Pro Bowl, something that should be expected from the leader of a defense that finished the regular season ranked sixth in points allowed. During the Ravens' Week 12 matchup, Suggs proved he doesn't age when he strip sacked Texans QB Tom Savage with 4:44 remaining in the fourth, shifting the momentum back to the Ravens who were clinging on to a 23-16 win. He's suffered two Achilles tears and a torn bicep over the last 5.5 seasons but has remained Hall of Fame worthy. As of right now, T-Sizzle has no plans of retiring. 

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Rookie of the Year: CB Marlon Humphrey

The Ravens' 2017 first-round pick stepped up to the plate when starting CB Jimmy Smith's season was over after suffering a torn Achilles in Week 13. The rookie out of Alabama finished the season with 34 combined tackles, four assists and two interceptions. Pro Football Focus graded Humphrey the fifth-best cover corner in the league. QBs only had a 53.5 rating when they threw in his direction. PFF also gave Humphrey a 82.7 rookie rating. 

Humphrey will continue to prove his worth during the 2018 season if Jimmy Smith is still recovering come Week 1.

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Special Teams MVP: P Sam Koch

Koch is in his 12th season with the Ravens and he's continuing to prove how efficient that leg of his is. He had a season long of 67-yards and placed 40 of 84 punts inside the 20-yard line. Koch's accuracy earned him AFC special teams player of the week not once, but twice this season. The first came in Week 12 against the Houston Texans when he not only placed five punts inside the 20-yard line, but also faked a punt and threw a 22-yard pass to Chris Moore for a first down. The second honor came in Week 15 against the Cleveland Browns after placing four punts inside the 20-yard line, three of them inside the five. While neither Koch or kicker Justin Tucker were named to the Pro Bowl, Ravens fans never break a sweat when the game is in their hands, or should we say, legs.