CINCINNATI — — Run, Ray, run.
That's what this season has become, the Ray Rice Show.
In the postseason, Rice will have to carry this team, and the Ravens hitched a ride Sunday on Rice, who rushed for 191 yards on 24 carries in a 24-16 win over the Cincinnati Bengals to secure the AFC North title.
Despite obvious attempts to change the makeup in this offense during the first half of the season, Rice and the offensive line showed why a team has to have a strong running game in the winter months to be serious contenders for a Super Bowl title.
Forget all this talk about the NFL as a passing league and about the Aaron Rogerses, Tom Bradys, Peyton Mannings and all the other glorious quarterbacks in the NFL. If you have one, great.
And if you don't, you'd better have the next best thing -- a strong running game.
On a winter day when 40 mph winds blew in off the Ohio River, the Ravens turned Rice loose for touchdown runs of 70 and 51 yards. Weather is often the X-factor in postseason games, so it's always good to have an ace like Rice.
Let Rice run and let quarterback Joe Flacco manage the game.
"I've always been a big Ray Rice fan and a fan of our offensive line," Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "I'm there with those young men in the trenches every day. When they are playing well and Ray Rice is running the ball, we're a great team."
Long drives paced by a strong running game are demoralizing to defenses, and Rice also hides some of the Ravens' defensive deficiencies because they aren't on the field as long.
"Well, December and January football in the AFC North, you have to be able to run the ball and you have to be able to complete passes," coach John Harbaugh said. "We've got a big, strong-armed quarterback that completed some passes in tough situations."
Home for Harbaugh
By beating the Bengals, the Ravens also got a first-round bye and will play a divisional-round game at home, the first home playoff game in Harbaugh's four years as coach.
The Ravens have five players with various degrees of injuries, and maybe the bye week will give them time to heal. The Ravens are the No. 2 seed in the AFC.
"Yeah, we have a much better chance now," Harbaugh said. "Towards the end of the game we were down six or seven players with various things. We were scrambling, but now we have two weeks and an opportunity to get healthy."
Yanda toughs it out
Ravens right guard Marshal Yanda didn't practice until Friday because of a bruised rib. He decided to play right before the game. If there is one player on the team that would tough it out, it would be Yanda. He is a throwback.
"For Marshal Yanda to come back and play when we thought he was going to miss two weeks showed toughness," Flacco said. "It really makes you look at those guys in a whole different light and say, 'Wow.'"
Added Yanda: "I'm hurting right now, but it's all good because we won."
Cundiff looks strong
Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff had trouble with a strained calf for the last couple of weeks, but he looked strong on his first field goal of 42 yards with 6:45 left in the first quarter.
Not only did Cundiff kick against a stiff wind, but he also cleared the goal post by 10 to 15 yards. His leg looked really strong.
Reed looks weak
Ravens Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed used to make a lame attempt to protect his injured shoulder and neck during tackles by at least trying to wrap up the ball carriers, but he doesn't even do that anymore. When Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham caught a 25-yard pass down the right sideline in the second quarter, Reed basically made no attempt to bring him down.
Instead, he just swiped at the ball. He had looked bad the past two games.
"It ain't so much the nerve impingement as it was my shoulder," Reed said of the Gresham reception. "On that particular play, when I hit the guy and bounced off, it was a bad angle. I understand I can't do that."
Catch the ball
Flacco doesn't need to work out timing issues with wide receiver Lee Evans. The Ravens have to do a better job in consistently catching the ball.
Flacco lofted a perfect long pass to Evans midway in the second quarter after Evans had gotten a step on Cincinnati cornerback Kelly Jennings, but Evans dropped the ball at the Bengals 20. Flacco couldn't have thrown a better touch pass.
The officials blew the call when Cincinnati safety Reggie Nelson tackled tight end Ed Dickson across the middle in the second quarter. The officials called it a blow to the head, but replays showed that Nelson hit Dickson with his shoulder.
If the officials aren't careful, there are going to be more knee injuries because tacklers are going to go down low instead of staying above the waist.
Maybe the Ravens will be fortunate enough to get away with it, but twice Cincinnati had receivers run down the middle of the field wide-open in the first half. One of those happened to be A.J. Green, who blew by an unsuspecting Reed.
Reed became irritated and so animated that he had to catch the attention of the coaching staff. He certainly caught the eyes of almost everyone in the press box.
At first, it seemed like a call that was irreversible because few officials allow their spots of the ball to be overturned.
But Harbaugh successfully challenged a called first down for Cincinnati at the Bengals 38 with 5:28 left in the half. The Bengals had to punt, and the Ravens went 80 yards in 11 plays to score a touchdown.
Harbaugh has won eight of 12 challenges this season.
More missed chances
The Bengals did not throw the ball much in the first quarter with the wind at their back. Down 7-0 early, Cincinnati was still reluctant to throw the ball and even allowed time to run out at the end of the quarter. At that point, I would have even called a timeout or two to get a few more shots throwing the ball downfield.