CINCINNATI--Poor starts have doomed the Cincinnati Bengals in all five of their losses this season, so when quarterback Andy Dalton threw an interception on the first play from scrimmage Sunday against Baltimore, there was a scent of a trend in Paul Brown Stadium.
And when he threw another one a few plays later, there was an undeniable reek.
But the Cincinnati defense limited the Ravens to a pair of field goals following those picks and not much after, and Dalton rebounded with some big throws to lift the Bengals to a 34-17 victory that sends them into the playoffs with momentum while ending Baltimore's season.
"That was a great win today against a team that everything to play for," Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis said. "We kept playing and overcoming ourselves, and you have to be proud of that."
The win kept alive the Bengals' hopes of earning a first-round bye, but New England put an end to that a few hours later with a 34-20 victory against Buffalo. That means Cincinnati will play San Diego in a first-round playoff game at Paul Brown Stadium, where the Bengals are 8-0 this season.
"We have a lot of confidence right now," Dalton said even after throwing a career-high four interceptions against the Ravens (8-8), who picked him off three times earlier this season.
"There's some frustration there," Dalton continued. "But we did some good things today. I took some chances with the ball I probably shouldn't have. But we were able to overcome them at the end of the day."
That may not have been the case if it weren't for the NFL's No. 5-ranked defense, which in addition to the early stops, held Baltimore to 222 yards of total offense and four of 15 on third downs.
"It could've been bad. It could've been 14-0 early," defensive tackle Domata Peko said. "But that's what our defense is about. Our defense stepped up. They got the ball in good field position and we were able to shut them down. That's what we do around here. We play some good defense here."
Four plays after Justin Tucker gave the Ravens a 6-0 lead, Dalton hit A.J. Green with a 53-yard touchdown, and the Bengals wouldn't trail again.
Dalton finished 21 of 36 for 281 yards and two touchdowns to offset the four interceptions, and he also ran for a 1-yard score that broke a 17-17 tie with 13:29 left in the game.
Mike Nugent added a 38-yard field goal 70 seconds later for a 10-point lead, and the defense pitched in again a few minutes later when Dre Kirkpatrick returned a Joe Flacco interception 21 yards for the final score.
"To be able to bounce back and win a game like this is important for us," offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth said. "This is the best we've ever felt going (into the playoffs). I've said for three years now that every time we step on the field we've been a little bit better. And you can see it now in our record, 9-7, 10-6 and now 11-5.
"We just cleared another hurdle we had yet to clear this year," he added. "That was having a bad first quarter and winning the football game."
All that was left after the game was to find out when their next game would be, and against whom. Some of the players said they were going to gather to cheer on the Bills, but defensive end Michael Johnson had a different approach.
"I don't care about the bye," he said. "If we get the bye, cool. If not, it's bad news for whoever comes in here. I feel like we're ready for whatever. We've got big dreams, big visions, big plans. We all believe we can be our best when it matters the most. I'm excited to see what we do."
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