CINCINNATI (AP) — AJ McCarron wasn't at all dismayed at the thought of facing that Steelers defense again. Yeah, the one that made him look so bad in his first significant NFL game.
After all, McCarron has gone 2-1 as the Cincinnati Bengals' starting quarterback since that bad afternoon against Pittsburgh not so long ago.
"It's a great matchup and a great rivalry and we are excited," said McCarron, who overcame a slow start and led the Bengals to a 24-16 victory over Baltimore on Sunday. "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 (12-4) have so much riding on their quarterback in their edgy playoff rematch on Saturday night in Cincinnati.
Andy Dalton broke his right thumb while making a tackle on an interception return on Dec. 13 against the Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium. McCarron took over and threw a pair of interceptions that helped the Steelers pull away to a 33-20 win.
Even though the Bengals have matched their franchise record for wins — they also won 12 in 1981 and 1988, when they reached the Super Bowl — they know that their season will be judged on what they do in the playoffs. Cincinnati hasn't won a playoff game since the 1990 season, the sixth-longest streak of postseason futility in NFL history.
The Bengals have faced the Steelers only once in the playoffs. They hosted them at Paul Brown Stadium during the 2005 season and lost Carson Palmer to a knee injury on his first pass. The Steelers won the game and went on to win the Super Bowl.
And now, they're coming back.
"We've been there before," coach Marvin Lewis said. "It's time to right the ship. You know — exorcism."
The Ravens (5-11) just want to get healthy. Their season quickly slipped away with a rash of close losses and injuries. Ryan Mallett kept them in the game on Sunday, completing 30 of 56 for 292 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions.
"I'm not big on moral victories, but this team has endured so much," linebacker Elvis Dumervil said. "I'm proud of the tough-minded team we have from the top to the bottom."
Five takeaways from the final regular season game:
McCARRON IS STILL LEARNING: The second-year quarterback was 17 of 27 for 160 yards with two touchdowns, three sacks and no interceptions. He hasn't thrown an interception in his three starts, avoiding the game-turning mistake. He didn't see open receivers in the first quarter on Sunday, completing only three passes for 24 yards, but he completed 10 of his next 12 for 117 yards and a pair of touchdowns that put the Bengals ahead.
"Everything wasn't perfect today, that's the way it's going to be sometimes," McCarron said. "When the other quarterback turns the ball over and you don't, you put yourself in position to win."
HILL GETS GOING: Hill finished the season without a 100-yard game rushing, a huge disappointment in his second season. But his performance on Sunday amounted to a breakthrough. He had a 38-yard touchdown run on a fourth-down play. Previously, his longest run was only 17 yards. And his 96 yards overall were a season high.
DEFENSE YIELDS YARDS, NOT POINTS: Cincinnati's defense followed its form of allowing yards but not points. The Ravens had 341 yards and converted 12 of their 20 third-down plays, but managed only one touchdown and three field goals. The Bengals allowed 270 points this season, a club record and the fewest in the league.
MALLETT SHOWS PROMISE: Mallett made two starts for the injury-depleted Ravens and made a good impression. In the two games, he was 58 of 97 for 566 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, a solid showing for someone learning the offense on the fly.
"As much work as I put in, I felt comfortable," Mallett said. "I'm looking forward to the spring and to (workouts). I've gotten a good crash course."
RAVENS HEAL: Baltimore lost more players to season-ending injuries than any other team in the NFL, including quarterback Joe Flacco. The Ravens need to spend the offseason healing and filling in holes in the roster.
"We have guys who can get the job done," coach John Harbaugh said. "We need pieces, there's no question. I think anybody can see what the pieces are that we need, and some of those pieces can be filled by some of the guys in that locker room."