CINCINNATI — Cedric Benson sprinted onto the field during pre-game introductions, a sign he was inspired after missing two games with a bad hip. Tough carry by tough carry, he ran into Cincinnati Bengals history.
The running back tied the franchise record with his fifth 100-yard game of the season on Sunday, setting up a 23-13 victory over the Detroit Lions that had even greater significance for the franchise.
The Bengals (9-3) assured themselves of a winning record for only the second time in 19 years. The other one came in 2005, when Cincinnati won the AFC North and lost its opening playoff game to Pittsburgh. The latest win left Cincinnati with a 2½ -game lead over Baltimore, which plays at Green Bay on Monday night.
"It puts us in a great position," said Chad Ochocinco, who had a season-high 137 yards on nine catches. "We don't have to depend on other people to win. We control our own destiny at this point. It's a very, very, very good feeling for us as a team and a city. It's pretty cool, man."
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A commitment to running the ball has carried them to the doorstep of the playoffs. In each of the past three games, a different Cincinnati running back has topped 100 yards, the first time that's happened in the NFL since Green Bay did it in 2006.
Benson finished with 110 yards on 36 carries and became the focal point once Cincinnati got ahead.
"I love carrying the ball that much," Benson said. "It usually just means we're putting a team away, and I love putting teams away. You know, you've got to put the hay in the barn. That's what my old high school coach used to call it. And anytime we're carrying the ball that much, I think we're putting the hay away."
After a solid first quarter, the Lions (2-10) got put away in a game that ended badly for them. Rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford aggravated his injured non-throwing shoulder with 3:37 to go and didn't return.
Stafford's left shoulder was driven into the ground on a hit by Dhani Jones as he threw a fourth-down incompletion. Stafford lay on the ground for a couple minutes before walking off slowly.
Stafford wasn't sure whether the sore shoulder would prompt him to sit out a few games.
The Bengals won another game with an approach so simple that the fans sometimes booed.
They did just enough against the league's worst pass defense — Carson Palmer threw for 220 yards and a touchdown to Ochocinco — and went into grind-it-out mode in the second half, after Coach Marvin Lewis chewed them out for their lackluster effort.
"We got that playing-to-the-level-of-our-opponents speech at halftime," Ochocinco said.
The first quarter of the Bengals' least-appealing home game — they needed an extension to sell out and avoid a television blackout — had fans wondering why they'd bought those tickets. Paul Brown Stadium filled with boos as the Lions outplayed the Bengals at the outset.
The Bengals got no pressure on Stafford, who had plenty of time to throw a 54-yard touchdown pass to Calvin Johnson for a 7-0 lead. Cincinnati's offensive line got pushed around — Cincinnati managed only 47 yards in the opening quarter.
One play by a 6-foot-7 rookie changed the mood.
Third-round pick Michael Johnson batted one of Stafford's passes in the air, and defensive end Jonathan Fanene caught it cleanly, tucked the ball into the crook of his left arm and ran 45 yards untouched for his first career score.
Palmer's 36-yard touchdown pass to Ochocinco on the next series put the Bengals in control. It was only their third touchdown pass in the last five games, a sign of how much they've been leaning on the run this season.
Benson and the running game took it from there.
Bengals 23, Lions 13
Detroit 7 0 0 6 — 13
Cincinnati 0 17 3 3 — 23
First quarter: Det—C.Johnson 54 pass from Stafford (Hanson kick), 3:27. Second quarter: Cin—Fanene 45 interception return (Graham kick), 11:50. Cin—Ochocinco 36 pass from C.Palmer (Graham kick), 5:55. Cin—FG Graham 44, :09. Third quarter: Cin—FG Graham 39, 8:03. Fourth quarter: Cin—FG Graham 23, 8:11. Det—K.Smith 2 run (pass failed), 1:36. A—62,545.
First downs 14 22
Total net yards 245 321
Rushes-yards 20-80 44-119
Passing 165 202
Punt returns 2-21 3-54
Kickoff returns 6-128 3-51
Interceptions ret. 2-3 2-47
Comp-att-int 13-29-2 17-29-2
Sacked-yards lost 3-27 2-18
Punts 6-43.7 4-44.0
Fumbles-lost 0-0 1-1
Penalties-yards 7-45 9-75
Time of possession 21:12 38:48
RUSHING—Detroit, K.Smith 16-75, Culpepper 1-7, Stafford 3-(minus 2). Cincinnati, Benson 36-110, C.Palmer 5-7, L.Johnson 2-4, Cosby 1-(minus 2).
PASSING—Detroit, Stafford 11-26-2-143, Culpepper 2-3-0-49. Cincinnati, C.Palmer 17-29-2-220.
RECEIVING—Detroit, C.Johnson 6-123, K.Smith 2-29, Heller 1-11, Morris 1-11, FitzSimmons 1-9, B.Johnson 1-5, Northcutt 1-4. Cincinnati, Ochocinco 9-137, Coles 2-25, Leonard 2-25, Benson 2-15, Foschi 1-16, J.Johnson 1-2.
MISSED FIELD GOALS—Detroit, Hanson 55.