Posted: 5 a.m.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, who has won an AFC championship ring in Pittsburgh and a Super Bowl ring in Baltimore, smiled one of those weary but satisfied AFC North smiles following his team's completion of its first division sweep with the help of a running back refugee from the run-and-gun AFC West.
"He s a North Division runner," Lewis said after Larry Johnson went 107 yards north and south to help give the Bengals control of the entire landscape of the AFC North with a 16-7 victory over the Browns.
They would have to wait another eight hours, but Baltimore's overtime victory over the Steelers on Sunday night in the division's other game gave the Bengals a magic number of three for their second AFC North title in five seasons. With a division record of 6-0 and with their 8-3 record two up on the Steelers' 6-5, any combination of Cincinnati wins and Pittsburgh losses adding up to three give the Bengals the championship via the tiebreaker.
"I wish it would give us something, but it doesn't give us anything," Lewis said of Sunday's victory that assures him a fifth non-losing season. "It's one of our goals, to always win the games in the division, and this football team has a great understanding of that. They know it's physical football. It was obviously physical out there today."
The prerequisite to play ball in the AFC North is to have a stingy defense that is as confusing as it is stubborn and as they have all year the Bengals brought it hard and fast in a 169-yard effort that was their lowest since a 1983 game against the Steelers.
"We're not soft," said defensive tackle Domata Peko after his mates extended the team record streak to seven straight games without allowing 100 yards rushing. "We're hard to run on up the middle and we get great tackling on the outside."
The Bengals' longest play from scrimmage was 21 yards, a run by rookie running back Bernard Scott that was the centerpiece of his 87-yard effort. Their only touchdown was quarterback Carson Palmer's four-yard pass to tight end J.P. Foschi, Palmer's only touchdown pass in the last three games and a throw that halted his longest skein without a touchdown pass at 12 quarters. Shayne Graham was the leading scorer with three field goals, one a 53-yarder that tied the longest of his career.
And Palmer loved every dull moment of it.
"Absolutely not, absolutely not," Palmer said when asked if it is boring to hand off. "It's fun to watch. Larry had a run on third-and-one that you just don't know how a guy does that. He has nowhere to go and jumps over a guy on one leg and somehow falls forward for two yards. Bernard Scott does a little shake move and gets outside. And, all the times we've seen Cedric (Benson) run for 100 yards and lead the league in rushing, or be in the top five. It's fun. It's fun when you're winning."
But the guy having the most fun is most probably the newest guy. Johnson had the look of a man who had won the lottery as he met the media at his locker. And why not? Three weeks ago he left the one-win Chiefs amid controversy, his past Pro Bowls unable to overcome problems on and off the field. Now a 6-1, 220-pound bruiser lands smack in the middle of a playoff run at the top of a division that fits his game like the glove that reached out and punched Cleveland for 210 yards on the ground.
"To be able to grind down teams is what the AFC North is and I always admired the AFC North for doing it," said Johnson, a laptop perched in his locker stall. "They were never the flashy offenses that have to score 35 to 40 points to win a game. They come in and we grind it and that's the type of games I love. That's the type of games I love to be a part of. I haven't had this much fun in a long time. To be able to go in and just run the clock down and just to run the ball no matter what play it is, no matter what down it, that's what I like about this offense and this offensive coordinator."
Johnson turned 30 during his first week as a Bengal. He's waited on the bench as a rookie, been the toast of the town with 1,700-yard seasons, been run out of town on a rail, and been the centerpiece of both a playoff contender and a rebuilding project. So he's one of these guys that Palmer is talking about that now populates the locker room: A guy that knows how rare it is to be 8-3 with a shot.
So, yeah Johnson loves AFC North football because it is winning football.
"Sometimes we're spoiled. You don't see the 80-yard passes or 90-yard runs like you used to. This is the division. This is what it is," Johnson said. "These are the divisions that go to the Super Bowl, the ones that grind it out. Steelers, Baltimore, all of them have been there. We'll have our chance for people to see the razzle dazzle. For now, let's just keep winning and grinding it out."
In just his 13th day and second game with the Bengals, Johnson left his mark on the team behind a bevy of unbalanced offensive lines that came out of coordinator Bob Bratkowski's Pandora's Box. Knowing that Browns head coach Eric Mangini and defensive coordinator Rex Ryan would give them some new looks, Bratkowski countered with more unbalanced sets than he's probably used in a game this season.
Certainly it was the first time anyone had seen 6-9, 350-pound right tackle Dennis Roland go in motion and first-round pick Andre Smith line up at right tackle. After $30 million, a monthlong holdout, and a broken foot, Smith made his NFL debut on about 10 snaps and helped the Bengals move the Browns in the unconventional fronts. Probably on only one of the snaps was he not lined up next to either Roland or left tackle Andrew Whitworth.
It caught the Browns off-stride just enough and the Bengals hammered them. Johnson ripped off 10 and 12 yards on his first two carries. He got first downs on four of his first five carries. After Scott sparked a touchdown drive late in the first half with one of his weekly how-did-he-do-that runs (this one went for 21 yards powering through the tackle of defensive end Robaire Smith at the line of scrimmage and then running away from cornerback Mike Adams with a stiff arm), Johnson came on to carry the load when Scott hobbled off with a turf toe on the first series of the second half.
Scott did return to run back a kickoff and carried twice more from scrimmage. But with Benson shelved one more week with his sore hip, one couldn't help wonder where the Bengals might have been without Johnson's 16 second-half carries.
"Their dedication to the run game is outstanding," Johnson said of the coaches. "They told me I was going to go early, but you never know how it's going to turn out or what is going to happen. So you have to stay prepared. I think Bernard got a little nicked up so I had to fill in for him. We together did an awesome job and complementing each other and he made some really good runs."
Lewis said it was all part of the plan and it all went according to script. But one can imagine how surprised Johnson was Sunday when he didn't even think he'd get two carries in Oakland the week before.
"I just came here for a second chance," Johnson said. "By far this isn't what I was expecting for a second chance. I wasn't expecting to go in and play as much as I did today. Or to get the carries I got last week. I'm just taking it in stride and whatever they want me to do, I just have to do it. It's a second chance for me where these guys have been here all the way through minicamps and training camps. I'm just here to try and help out."
It clearly meant something to Johnson that the Bengals trusted him with so much so early. He has said ever since he got here that the Bengals pass protection schemes are easier to learn than the Chiefs, largely because Palmer simplifies it at the line of scrimmage and just gives him an area to worry about.
"This is special because it's a new situation," Johnson said. "These guys trust me to go in there and protect Carson and put the ball in the right place and hold on to it. Like they say, when you carry the ball, you hold a lot of hopes and dreams in your hands."
His ex-Chiefs teammate, Foschi, invited him over for Thanksgiving dinner and the table ended up being bountiful with Foschi catching his second touchdown pass of the season and his career.
"He's a good guy and he ran hard today," Foschi said. "We've got a lot of backs like that."
Whitworth can also see Johnson fitting into not just the smashmouth mentality, but also the team game.
"We knew that he was a special player; there was no doubt about that," Whitworth said. "Having him have another week under his belt he was able to get comfortable and we feel comfortable with him. We said it. He's another weapon if he fits in and he's done that. We've got three guys that can take it anytime. We feel pretty good about that."
The ever watchful Palmer says Johnson has done everything that's been asked and it reminds him of how Benson came in here off the street last year. Palmer could tell that Johnson, like Benson, was going home Wednesday and Thursday nights to study after practice.
"You don't just throw a guy in a game," Palmer said. "You've got to make sure you're doing certain things in practice, certain drills, that he understands what we're trying to do on certain plays. Just like Cedric, he came in and showed he was capable of picking up things quickly."
Palmer didn't know Benson, but he knew Johnson from being a 2002 Heisman Trophy finalist and thought "he was a good guy." But the positive experience with Benson taught Palmer not to judge a guy off Google.
"From the situation with Cedric, I didn't make up my mind on Larry," Palmer said. "I met him before and I knew he was a good guy. He'd been through some stuff and you can't hold that against him. He's been a good teammate, just like Ced. I'm glad to have him on our team."
On this AFC North day, most of the 64,553 that were filing out of PBS had to agree.