CINCINNATI (AP) — AJ McCarron didn’t make any huge mistakes in his first start at home. Then began the wait to see if he’ll get a chance to do it again in the playoffs.
McCarron overcame a rough start and threw a pair of touchdown passes Sunday, rallying Cincinnati to a sloppy 24-16 victory over the Baltimore Ravens. At the moment, the Bengals backup is lined up to lead them into the postseason.
“It’s going to be a fun week,” said McCarron, who won two national championships at Alabama.
The Bengals (12-4) matched the best record in franchise history — they also won 12 games during the 1981 and 1988 seasons when they reached the Super Bowl. Their playoff seeding was still unsettled when the game ended, coming down to Denver’s game later in the day.
“It means we’re one of the dominant teams in the league,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “‘You have to play really well to be 12-4.”
Cincinnati won two of its last three games after McCarron took over for Andy Dalton, who broke his right thumb during a loss to Pittsburgh at Paul Brown Stadium. Dalton is scheduled for an exam on Monday and is hoping to return at some point in the postseason.
The AFC North champions wasted a chance to clinch the No. 2 seed and an opening-round bye — another week for Dalton to heal — when they lost in Denver 20-17 on Monday night, ending it with McCarron’s fumble on a snap. The Broncos could clinch a bye against San Diego later Sunday.
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.
The Bengals wrapped up one of their most successful regular seasons in front of 57,254 fans, their smallest crowd of the season at Paul Brown Stadium.
McCarron made his third career start in Dalton’s place — his first 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.
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.”
The Bengals have been trying to get McCarron ready to start in the playoffs. His inexperience showed at the outset on Sunday when he failed to spot open receivers and was off-target on throws, resulting in four straight punts.
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: 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.