Happy New Year! It's taken until the first day of 2012 to determine the winner of the 2011 AFC North division race.
The Baltimore Ravens are holding on to the division lead thanks to their sweep of rival Pittsburgh, and they can wrap it up with a win over the Cincinnati Bengals or a Steelers loss to Cleveland.
Winning the division makes a huge difference-- it will give Baltimore the #2 seed (possibly even #1 if the Patriots lose as well) and the right to begin the playoffs at home. If the Steelers overtake them, the Ravens will be bumped down to #5 as a Wild Card team.
This will be the Ravens' fourth consecutive trip to the playoffs, but in all that time, they have not played a single postseason game at home because either the Steelers or Bengals have taken the division. Will the path to the Super Bowl come through Baltimore?
At the same time, this is a huge game for the Cincinnati Bengals, who would be thrilled with a Wild Card berth, since for them it's either the #6 seed or no playoffs at all. They have regained control of their own playoff destiny-- all they need is a win to make the playoffs.
The Bengals will also reach the playoffs with losses by the Jets and either the Broncos or the Raiders, but with the Titans, Jets, and Raiders all hoping the Bengals will stumble, the only way to ensure their season will continue is to defeat the Ravens.
Thanks to pleas from the players and coaches, and two-for-one ticket deals, Paul Brown Stadium has sold out for just the second time this year. Will the home crowd cause problems for the Ravens? Baltimore is 8-0 at home this season but only 3-4 on the road.