Bengals pound Vikings, win AFC North title

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Three seasons in the NFL, three times in the playoffs. Andy Dalton has done something special during his just-getting-started career.


Now he gets another chance to win one when it matters most.


Dalton threw four touchdown passes on Sunday, and linebacker Vincent Rey returned an interception 25 yards for a score and the Bengals had another big day at home, beating the Minnesota Vikings 42-14 on Sunday.


A few minutes after their game ended, the Bengals (10-5) clinched a playoff berth when Miami lost at Buffalo 19-0. They later clinched the AFC North title when Baltimore lost at home to New England 41-7.


It’s Cincinnati’s first division title since 2009 and the Bengals’ eighth overall in their 46 seasons.


And it makes it 3 for 3 for Dalton, who will be in the spotlight more than anyone else at playoff time. It’s the first time in their history that the Bengals have reached the playoffs in three straight seasons.


“To be in the playoffs every year since I’ve been here is huge,” said Dalton, only the fifth quarterback in NFL history to make the playoffs in each of his first three seasons. “It gives you a chance to accomplish the ultimate goal.”


Something about Paul Brown Stadium brings out the best in Dalton and the Bengals, who are 7-0 at home. They’ve topped 40 points in each of their past four home games, a franchise first. Dalton has thrown for five, three, three and four TDs in those games.


“He was really grooving out there today,” said A.J. Green, who caught two of the touchdowns. “We got everybody involved today.”


The Vikings (4-10-1) had knocked off playoff contenders Chicago and Philadelphia in the past three weeks. Even with Adrian Peterson back from a foot injury, they couldn’t keep up.


The Vikings had allowed the second-most points in the league heading into the game. They gave up 40 for the third time this season. Two of Cincinnati’s touchdowns came off their defense.


“Turnovers definitely decided the game,” said Peterson, who sat out the second half with the Vikings far behind. “We put them in a position to play the game the way they wanted to play.


“It’s tough getting behind the 8-ball like we did.”


Dalton has thrown 31 touchdown passes this season, one shy of Carson Palmer’s club record from 2005. Dalton replaced Palmer in the 2011 season and has led the Bengals’ surge. His biggest shortcoming: 0-2 with two poor showings in the playoffs.


The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since the 1990 season, tied for the seventh-longest stretch of futility in NFL history.


Dalton had good conditions for throwing the ball – breezy with temperatures in the 50s. And the defense helped out, too.


Dalton threw touchdown passes of 29 yards to Green and 16 yards to Jermaine Gresham as the Bengals pulled ahead 28-7 before halftime, the most points that Minnesota had allowed in an opening half.


Two of Cincinnati’s first three touchdowns came courtesy of the defense. Rey’s interception and touchdown return made it 21-7.


Giovani Bernard pulled off the game’s flashiest play, turning a short pass into a 41-yard play in the third quarter by doing a complete spin to avoid a tackler, stiff-arming another and reaching the 7-yard line. Dalton passed to Mohamed Sanu for his third touchdown. Green made a one-hand grab of a 2-yard pass for another TD.


New England 41, Baltimore 7: Logan Ryan had two interceptions, LeGarrette Blount scored twice and the playoff-bound New England Patriots breezed past Baltimore 41-7, ending the Ravens’ four-game winning streak and diminishing the postseason hopes of the defending Super Bowl champions.


This rematch of the AFC championship game was a mismatch from the outset. New England took a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter and never let up behind a defense that forced four turnovers and had four sacks.


The Patriots (11-4) were assured their fifth straight AFC East title before the game started when Miami lost at Buffalo. It’s the 11th division crown for New England coach Bill Belichick, tied with Don Shula for most since the 1970 merger.


N.Y. Jets 24, Cleveland 13: Geno Smith threw two touchdown passes to David Nelson and ran for another score as the New York Jets topped the Cleveland Browns 24-13 in their home finale.


With Rex Ryan’s job status uncertain, it could have been the coach’s last game in front of the home fans, and Smith helped make it a good one with a solid performance. The rookie quarterback had his first game with at least two TD passes since October and committed no turnovers.


St. Louis 23, Tampa Bay 13: Zac Stacy rushed for 104 yards and a touchdown, and two other rookies also had big games for the St. Louis Rams in their 23-13 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Stedman Bailey scored on a 27-yard reverse, and Alec Ogletree forced two fumbles.


Indianapolis 23, Kansas City 7: Andrew Luck threw for 241 yards and a touchdown, Donald Brown ran 51 yards for another score and the Indianapolis Colts beat the Kansas City Chiefs 23-7 in a potential preview of an AFC wild-card playoff game.


Denver 37, Houston 13: Peyton Manning has regained his NFL record for touchdown passes with 51 and the Denver Broncos have clinched the AFC West.


Manning threw for 400 yards and four touchdowns, including three in the fourth quarter to surpass the 50 TD passes Tom Brady threw in 2007. Manning led the Broncos (12-3) to a 37-13 win over the Texans (2-13) on Sunday that extended Houston’s franchise-record skid to 13 games.


Manning did it on a 25-yard pass to Julius Thomas with 4:28 remaining. Just 2 minutes earlier, he tied the mark with a 20-yard pass to Eric Decker.


Buffalo 19, Miami 0: Kyle Williams had two sacks as the Buffalo Bills set a single-season record and put a dent into the Miami Dolphins’ playoff chances with a 19-0 win.


Carolina 17, New Orleans 13: Cam Newton threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Domenik Hixon with 23 seconds left to lift the Carolina Panthers to a 17-13 win over the New Orleans Saints and clinch the team’s first playoff berth since 2008.


Dallas 24, washington 23: Tony Romo threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to DeMarco Murray on fourth down with 1:08 remaining, giving the Dallas Cowboys a 24-23 win over the Washington Redskins and setting up a winner-take-all regular season finale against the Philadelphia Eagles next week for the NFC East title.


Tennessee 20, Jaguars 16: Nate Washington scored on a 30-yard reception in the fourth quarter, Tennessee got a much-needed defensive stop late and the Titans ended a three-game losing streak with a 20-16 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.


Arizona 17, Seattle 10: Carson Palmer overcame four interceptions to throw a 31-yard touchdown to Michael Floyd with 2:13 left, and the Arizona Cardinals kept their playoff hopes alive with a 17-10 win over Seattle on Sunday, snapping the Seahawks 14-game home win streak.


N.Y. Giants 23, Detroit 20: Josh Brown’s 45-yard field goal on the third drive of overtime lifted the New York Giants to a 23-20 win over Detroit on Sunday and eliminated the Lions from postseason contention.


Detroit (7-8) lost for the fifth time in six games.


San Diego 26, Oakland 13: Philip Rivers threw a go-ahead, 4-yard touchdown pass to rookie Keenan Allen in the third quarter and the San Diego Chargers remained alive in the playoff race by overcoming three turnovers to beat Oakland 26-13.


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