Larry Johnson rumbled for 107 yards. (AP photo)
Updated: 8:10 p.m.
The new kid in town, running back Larry Johnson, found a familiar face to have Thanksgiving dinner with last Thursday when tight end and former Chiefs teammate J.P. Foschi invited him to his home. After the Bengals feasted on Sunday's 16-7 victory over the Browns at Paul Brown Stadium for the franchise's first division sweep ever, Foschi came over to Johnson's locker to remind him, "It was all my wife's cooking."
Johnson came from oblivion to pound the Bengals to a 6-0 finish in the division with a 107-yard effort on 22 carries that was a vintage bread-and-butter AFC North back performance without all the trimmings and Foschi scored the only Bengals touchdown when quarterback Carson Palmer hit him with a four-yard touchdown pass on third down with 1:10 left in the first half that let everybody breathe a little easier at 10-0.
It may have been ugly, but it was the kind of win that rewrites media guides. Johnson joins Bernard Scott and Cedric Benson with 100-yard games, the first time since 1970 the Bengals have had three different 100-yard rushers in the same season. And the Browns' 169 yards of total offense is the fewest the Bengals have allowed in nearly 26 years, since they gave the Steelers 154 on Dec. 4, 1983.
Scott, the rookie who had his first 100-yard game last week in Oakland, might have had another if he didn't get a turf toe in the first series of the second half. He fought through it for 87 yards on 18 carries, 13 of them in the first half while Johnson took up the slack with 16 carries in the second half.
"I wish (the division sweep) meant something," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "But I should take the praise. It is one of our goals."
Palmer, who couldn't care less he threw for just 110 yards while the Bengals went for 210 on the ground, was cautious but pleased.
"This team should be proud of it, no question," Palmer said. "But it's only a small step on what we have left to accomplish."
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who spent much of the day moving back and forth in the unbalanced Bengals offensive line, saluted the second biggest running haul of the season, just behind the 215 the Bengals put on the Bears on Oct. 25.
"You can't downplay it; it's quite an accomplishment," Whitworth said after the Bengals broke the club record of six straight division wins that had been set twice. "We can't leave it at this. But to see how this team finished last year (4-11-1) and then to see it go 6-0 in the division, it's really amazing."
The amazing thing is that the Bengals have three backs who have each rushed for 100 yards in the last four games. Benson, who had four 100-yard games before missing the last two games with a sore hip, says "absolutely" he'll be back to play Detroit next Sunday at PBS. He said he could have played against Cleveland, but was told a different plan.
"They want me to be fresh going into these last five games and the postseason; it's a good plan," Benson said. "Seeing those guys get in there and perform the way they did is a great sign knowing we've got a good backup in B-Scott and Larry provided a great hand. But it's really exciting to see the offensive line move guys around. Both those guys almost had 100 yards today. That was the biggest thrill of the day."
Benson believes that he'll go back to being the bell cow getting the lion's share of carries. When asked if there were enough carries to go around for three quality backs, Benson was a bit bemused.
"That's a weird question," he said. "I didn't know I was going to share time. Is that what you're implying? If it wasn't like that before I don't know why it'd be like that."
Like Benson's 189 yards against the Bears, this was a day of redemption for Johnson, although he only had to wait less than a month after the Chiefs cut him in a cloud of controversy while Benson had to wait four months for a big game.
After he Twittered his way out of Kansas City with less than politically correct comments about his head coach and gays early last month, Johnson wasn't sure he'd ever have the chance to run for 100 yards again. Even without the cloud, he had no 100-yard games this year and just three last year, the last one on Dec. 21, 2008 against Miami when he had 108 on just 12 carries.
"I knew the basics; I knew the game plan," said Johnson, who signed with the Bengals Nov. 16 and needed just 13 days to get his 31st career 100-yard game. "I may not know what happened in OTAs or training camps, but they gave me a decent package. ... I came into a situation I never knew when I was going to have the ball again. They already had Cedric and they already had Bernard, it's just a blessing to come into this situation and be able to contribute. Especially when this team is already on a playoff run. I just felt good to even touch the ball."
Palmer was pleased to give it to Johnson. He smiled when he was asked how the Bengals are going to give the ball to three 100-yard rushers.
"I have no idea," he said. "But I can't imagine a better problem to have."
The last three 100-yard rushers in the same season for the Bengals? Jess Phillips, Virgil Carter and Paul Robinson in 1970 against the Raiders, Browns and Steelers, respectively. They were the only 100-yard rushing games for the first Bengals playoff team.
The 6-1 Johnson is listed at 230 pounds, but he's probably not that big. Yet his straight-ahead style is certainly worthy of the AFC North and the Bengals scheme, and he can feel the fit.
"That's what this running game is; behind the tackles," Johnson said. "There's no tosses or loop-to-loop plays. You line up and you go after it and I appreciate this offensive coordinator for doing it. When it's time to run the clock, that's what he does."
Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski unveiled what was probably his biggest use of the unbalanced line this season and it was a good way to get No. 1 pick Andre Smith into his first NFL game. He was on the field for about 10 snaps at right tackle and for all but one he was either next to Whitworth or right tackle Dennis Roland lined up as tight ends. It looked like Scott ducked behind Smith on an 11-yard run in the Bengals touchdown drive.
"It felt really good. A lot of the guys were congratulating me for dressing out," Smith said. "I wanted to make sure I was using the right technique. I think I did all right, (but) it was all a blur."
But he did say his foes were stronger than in college.
Even though wide receiver Chad Ochocinco had just three catches for 38 yards, it's the happiest anyone had ever seen him after a three-catch game. He said on Wednesday he wanted the Bengals to run it 50 times, and he got his wish with 45 and a win.
But he had a message for next Sunday's game against the Lions.
"I'm not going to let them treat us like that for three straight games," he said of his receivers. "We won the game. We had a wonderful day on the ground. Bernard Scott and Larry Johnson played extremely well. I asked for us to run the ball. This basically solidifies us being able to run the ball right now. It helps us once we do get to the playoffs.
"Now next week things are going to have to change. 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. I just want to relay that message."
Ochocinco seemed to be joking, but he wasn't joking when he said, "The Hard Knocks Curse" is off.
The win guarantees Lewis five non-losing seasons, which ties him with Paul Brown and Sam Wyche on the all-time coaching list.
Browns Pro Bowl returner Josh Cribbs never got a shot to return a punt with the Bengals' Kevin Huber dribbling four of his six punts inside the 20, one in the end zone, and one for a fair catch. Huber seemed to be shanking his kicks, but they were effective because they bounced the Bengals' way before Cribbs could do anything with them.
"It looks a lot better on paper," Huber said. "I had some bad hits today. I got some really good rolls, but that won't always happen."