DETROIT (AP)—The Cincinnati Bengals have shed their laughingstock image, winning their first division title since 1990 against a team that fits their former reputation.
“It’s a great accomplishment, and it’s one of the many goals we set out to do,” said Palmer, who has thrown 30 TD passes this season, breaking Ken Anderson’s team record by one set in 1981. “We still have two tough games left, and a chance to get a bye.”
Cincinnati (11-3) won its fourth straight game to claim the AFC North, adding to a sensational season after 14 straight years without a winning record.
“Even a garbage can gets a steak now and again,” said offensive tackle Willie Anderson, a Bengal since 1996.
Hundreds of fans made the short trek from Ohio to celebrate. They gathered behind the Bengals’ bench and near the exit late in the game to cheer in a near-empty stadium that was jeering the home team at every opportunity when it was almost full.
“It was a weird, eerie feeling,” Palmer said. “It was quieter when we were on the field than it is at home.”
The Bengals have a chance for their best record ever, having gone 12-4 in 1981 and 1988. They made the Super Bowl both years.
If they make it to the title game again, they’ll return to Detroit’s Ford Field.
“I’m happy and elated, but our biggest goal is to get back here,” Anderson said.
The reeling Lions (4-10) lost their fifth in a row, and seventh of eight since sharing the division lead.
“We are suffering,” said Detroit’s interim coach Dick Jauron, who fell to 0-3.
The tone was set on the opening kickoff when Detroit’s R.W. McQuarters fumbled. By the end of the first quarter, the Bengals led 17-0 after Palmer threw two TDs and they forced two turnovers.
“That’s what you fear against a team like that,” Jauron said.
Palmer was 28-of-39 for 274 yards with three TDs, matching a season high, and two interceptions. He connected with Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who left the game with an ankle injury, and Kelly Washington on scoring throws.
Johnson had a career-high 11 catches for 99 yards, and when he caught a 1-yard TD pass in the first quarter, the flamboyant receiver looked around before simply handing the football to the official.
“This game was too important,” he explained. “I just wanted to play it safe, because we needed a win.”
Rudi Johnson had 117 yards rushing and two TDs. He scored on the first drive after halftime to put the Bengals ahead 31-7, and added a second TD early in the fourth.
Detroit’s Jeff Garcia was 13-of-21 for 138 yards with one TD and three interceptions, including one to O’Neal, who broke a team record with 10 interceptions. Garcia was replaced by Joey Harrington early in the fourth quarter, a move that drew cheers, and Harrington finished 6-of-7 for 77 yards and a TD.
Harrington, the third pick of the 2002 draft, acknowledged it might have been his last home game as a Lion.
“I realize the cutthroat nature of this business and the produce-now mentality, and we haven’t done it,” Harrington said.
Artose Pinner ran for 55 yards for the Lions, playing in place of Kevin Jones (elbow). Roy Williams caught a TD pass in the second quarter. Charles Rogers turned a short toss from Harrington into a 35-yard TD to make it 38-17 midway through the fourth quarter.
Before the game, hundreds of fans marched to protest Lions president Matt Millen, who has led the franchise to an NFL-worst 20-58 record the past five seasons.
As promised, many fans wore orange—Cincinnati’s color—during the game. They chanted “Fire Millen!” throughout the game before most fans decided to head home in the second half.
“We understood what they were after,” Williams said. “They hoped we would lose so they could get what they want to happen in management, or with players they want gone. I think their plan went well.”
Houshmandzadeh said he will play next week. … In four games against the NFC North, the Bengals have 18 interceptions. … Rogers caught his first TD since Sept. 28, 2003, and had three receptions for a season-high 71 yards. …Cincinnati S Anthony Mitchell started in place of inactive Ifeanyi Ohalete (ribs) and DT Shaun Smith was in for inactive Bryan Robinson (foot).