A superb running game has helped the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals move within a victory of their second winning season in 19 years. Getting Cedric Benson(notes) back for a rare meeting with the lowly Detroit Lions should only help.
The Bengals will rely on their powerful ground game again Sunday when they host the Lions for the first time since 1992.
Cincinnati (8-3) last posted a winning season when it won the North in 2005, giving the team its only above-.500 record in 18 years. The Bengals’ turnaround this year from a 4-11-1 mark in 2008 has been due in large part to their ground attack.
Cincinnati ranks seventh in the NFL with 132.6 rushing yards per game. The Bengals bounced back from a loss to woeful Oakland with a 16-7 victory over Cleveland last week, as they ran for 210 yards.
“If teams aren’t going to give us certain throws, we’re capable of running the ball,” said Carson Palmer(notes), who was 13 of 24 for 110 yards. “We’ve proved that. We’ve worked extremely hard on it, and we’re going to continue to do that because it’s been a winning formula for this team. It works for this team.”
Cincinnati has swept its division schedule for the first time and holds a two-game lead over Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
Now, the Bengals are expected to get Benson back after he missed two games with a sprained hip.
The running back leads the team with a career-high 859 rushing yards and six touchdowns on 205 rushes, which were the most in the NFL when he was injured. He may find himself sharing carries with Larry Johnson(notes) and rookie Bernard Scott(notes), though, as the Bengals’ ground game has gotten deeper in his absence.
Former Chief Johnson, signed last month, ran for a season-high 107 yards against Cleveland, while Scott added 87 after rushing for a season-high 119 against the Raiders.
Coach Marvin Lewis said that Benson will start against Detroit (2-9), but declined to say how he plans to handle his trio of running backs. Scott has a case of turf toe that could limit his availability.
“The only thing I have to figure out is how to win the game, right?” Lewis said. “I have one job.”
Johnson doesn’t have a problem with moving back to a supporting role.
“I just came here for a second chance,” said Johnson, once among the top running backs in the NFL before falling out of favor and being released by Kansas City last month. “I’ll just take everything in stride and move on. Whatever they want me to do, I just have to do it.”
While the running backs and quarterback are fine with the run-first approach, at least one Cincinnati receiver wants to do something other than block.
“Now next week, we’ve got the Detroit Lions. Things need to change,” Chad Ochocinco(notes) said. “Now the roles need to be reversed. I’m speaking on behalf of myself and the receiving corps - we would like to throw the ball 50 times next week.”
Ochocinco has caught 53 passes for 773 yards and five touchdowns, but was limited to 200 yards with no scores on 14 receptions over the last four games.
That could change against the Lions, who have the worst defense in the league at 394.3 yards allowed per game.
Detroit is coming off a 34-12 loss to Green Bay last Thursday, giving up 422 yards. The defense surrendered an average of 451.0 yards in the last three games.
“Our emphasis is bend but don’t break,” linebacker Julian Peterson(notes) told the Lions’ official Web site. “We don’t care how many yards a team gets. If we can keep the score within a reasonable amount, or even better no points at all, it gives the offense a much better chance to make those last-minute drives.
“We have to do our best to keep the game manageable so (the offense) doesn’t have to get out of their game plan.”
That hasn’t happened, as the Lions have given up an average of 30.5 points to rank last in the league.
Rookie Matthew Stafford(notes) is looking for improvement after throwing four interceptions against the Packers. He went 20 of 43 for 213 yards and a touchdown, a week after throwing for a season-high 422 yards, five scores and the winning 1-yard TD throw as time expired to beat Cleveland 38-37.
The Bengals have won three straight against the Lions - all in Detroit - and six of nine all-time matchups. The teams are meeting in Cincinnati for the first time since the Bengals lost 19-13 at Riverfront Stadium on Nov. 22, 1992.
Cincinnati took the last matchup 41-17 on Dec. 18, 2005.