Updated: 9:40 p.m.
Even with the playoffs glinting in the near future, these 2009 Bengals don't look ready to change their stripes.
The Bengals secured their second winning season under head coach Marvin Lewis on Sunday with a totally scripted 23-13 victory at Paul Brown Stadium that was the Lions' 18th straight road loss and pushed the 9-3 Bengals within a game and a half of the AFC North title with four to play.
With 6-6 Pittsburgh losing to Oakland and 6-5 Baltimore playing at Green Bay on Monday night, the Bengals are a win away from eliminating Pittsburgh from the title chase while waiting to see what the Ravens do. Since the Bengals control the tiebreaker, they just have to make sure they finish with the same record as the Steelers and Ravens to win their second division title under Lewis.
The Bengals now go on the road in back-to-back weeks to the NFL elite, Minnesota and San Diego, to find out how good they are. They already know who they are.
"We're a defensive and running team," said quarterback Carson Palmer after a you've-seen-this-one-before effort.
It was the running game again with running back Cedric Benson tying a franchise record with his fifth 100-yard game of the season (110 yards on 36 carries) and the defense, again, with another dominating performance on third down that extended their franchise-record to eight straight games not allowing 100 yards rushing.
"We are what we are," Palmer said, admitting there is something missing in the passing game. "When you're a 'run first' team, that's your mentality. It's a little hard to get in sync when you're used to throwing the ball all the time."
With the Patriots losing Sunday, the Bengals now have a two-game lead over New England for the second AFC seed in the playoffs. But right now the No. 2 seed would go to San Diego even though the Bengals are tied with the Chargers because of a better conference record. So the Bengals would be the third seed if the season ended Sunday.
"We're not worried about that," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "We're just worried about winning games. We're not looking to show off with fireworks and explosions and have people doing cartwheels out there. Just win."
And that's all they did because nine penalties for 75 yards and two Palmer interceptions prevented them from putting the Lions away. For the second straight game the Bengals scored just one touchdown against one of the NFL's worst defenses. In another blue effort in the red zone, the Bengals scored no touchdowns on two trips inside the 20, making it 10 times in their last 13 forays they haven't scored a touchdown.
"If there's anything we're guilty of it's playing to the level of our opponents," said Palmer after compiling a rather desultory 65.3 passer rating carved out of 17-of-29 passing for 220 yards, a touchdown and the two picks. "When we've played good teams, we've played better. It was hard not to look forward to these two upcoming games. Winning today and knowing that we have to play great football is good for us."
Head coach Marvin Lewis seemed to sense his team looked past this three-game stretch of the Raiders, Browns and Lions.
"There will be no excuses now; it's time to go play," Lewis said. "We'll go to Minneapolis this weekend; that's what these guys have been looking forward to. It's here now, so we'll go. I don't know if they're looking forward to it, but that's what everybody keeps talking about to them. Now it's here."
But one of the club's defensive leaders, free safety Chris Crocker, may not be. He wouldn't confirm he had an ankle injury, but he and Lewis said he had an MRI at halftime. When Crocker left the locker room after the game without a limp, he said the MRI had not been read.
"When I was in there," he said, "it was bad enough that I didn't think I could help the team and I couldn't finish."
It is the ninth time a Bengals running back has had five 100-yard games in a season and Benson is the sixth to do it. The last was Rudi Johnson in 2006.
But it is the first time in club history three different backs have had 100-yard games in three straight games and just the third time in the NFL in the past 17 seasons. While Benson sat out with a sore hip, rookie Bernard Scott ran for 119 yards in Oakland two weeks ago and last week Larry Johnson had 107 against Cleveland.
The 2006 Packers did it with Noah Herron getting 106 on Oct. 8 against St. Louis, Ahman Green 118 Oct. 22 at Miami, and Vernand Morency 101 Oct. 29 vs. Arizona. The '93 Seahawks got 168 from Chris Warren Dec. 19 vs. Phoenix, Jon Vaughn 131 Dec. 26 vs. Pittsburgh, and John L. Williams 102 Jan. 2 at Kansas City.
"It says a lot about our ability to move the football on the ground," Benson said. "That's pretty big time in this league because you have to run the ball to win championships, no doubt. Big (kudos) to the guys up front for making it happen. A lot of the hard work they put into it every week and the execution they do make it possible."
And everybody on the line who dressed played. While left guard Nate Livings played the first and third quarters, Evan Mathis played the second and fourth. Plus, rookie right tackle Andre Smith rotated a goodly amount with Dennis Roland and right tackle Anthony Collins got in on some snaps as the Bengals rolled out about another dozen unbalanced lines.
After the Bengals tied the game at seven on defensive end Jon Fanene's 45-yard interception touchdown return, the Bengals proceeded to smash it when they couldn't get the passing game going against the NFL's last-ranked pass defense. Benson carried it four straight times and five times in an eight-play drive in which the 36-yard touchdown pass from Palmer to Chad Ochocinco was set up on play-action.
On his nine-yard run early in the drive, the Bengals shifted Whitworth next to Smith and Benson rode up their back.
"The fact we've got everybody on the line playing shows how deep we are," Whitworth said.
On this day and in this season, it was fitting that the play that got the Bengals going wasn't a first-down pass play but a third-down defensive play.
The Bengals are playing the best they've ever played on third down, or since they third-down stats started being kept in 1981. The best they ever did was 33.9 percent the next year in a strike-shortened season, but after they put Detroit through a 2-11 grind job Sunday, the Bengals are now at 32.9 percent and could be near first because the Vikings came into Sunday leading the NFL at 32.8.
But this one was big because PBS was deathly silent after Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford hit wide receiver Calvin Johnson for a 54-yard touchdown for a 7-0 lead and the Bengals offense responded with the ugliest three-and-out this side of rugby. A hold on Whitworth. A one-yard loss by Benson. Palmer's high pass on third-and-21 that was nowhere near The Ocho or tight end J.P. Foschi.
But facing a third-and-11 from the Bengals 49 with 12 minutes left in the second quarter, Stafford tried a screen pass to running back Aaron Brown. Rookie right end Michael Johnson swooped in with his 6-7 wingspan and batted the ball in the air. Fanene, who slides from right end to tackle to make room for Johnson on passing downs, caught the ball and ran away from Brown for his first touchdown since his senior year at Utah, when he took an interception 76 yards.
It woke up the crowd and, like The Ocho said, "That was a big pick-me-up for us. To be able to get seven points like that, it kind of freed us up as an offense and tied the game. That kind of put us at ease."
Johnson said he had the words of defensive line coach Jay Hayes ringing in his ears when he realized it was a screen.
"When (the tackle) lets you through like that, you're all excited and you want to make a big play," Johnson said. "Jay says not to leave your feet, because the quarterback can pump-fake you. So I'm just trying to keep my hands up. But I still think I jumped a little bit there."
Fanene, a former high school quarterback and tight end, said he took a look at the scoreboard as he finished his run and saw himself going into the end zone.
"That's big; scoring a touchdown in the league," he said.
In the last five games, the Bengals have now held foes to 14-for-61 on third on third down in the last five games.
Lewis is now 55-52-1 in the regular season and is tied with Bengals founder Paul Brown on the club's coaching victories list, nine behind leader Sam Wyche. Brown's 55th win also came in Cincinnati in December of a playoff run. It was on Dec. 21, 1975 in a 47-17 win over the Chargers at Riverfront Stadium in the season finale that gave the Bengals their best finish ever at 11-3.
"Obviously that's an achievement to have your name next to Paul Brown's name in coaching," Lewis said. "It's a great thing, and it's all due to these guys in the locker room."
With 137 yards on nine catches, the Ocho had his biggest game in 37 games, stretching back to the 138 yards he had in Seattle on Sept. 23, 2007. He also got his first touchdown in more than a month (Oct. 25) on a sliding 36-yard post behind Detroit's zone.
"Easy," The Ocho said. "I played baseball."
No celebration on the field, but he slipped on a sombrero and poncho on the sidelines to celebrate the first touchdown by a Bengals receiver in 16 quarters. And the longest Bengals touchdown pass since the 2007 finale in Miami, when The Ocho was a Johnson and caught a 70-yarder from Palmer south of the 50-yard-line border.
But if you were listening to the veterans like not only The Ocho, but also Crocker in the postgame, they were hitting the urgency button.
"We're not going to be playing the Detroit Lions week after week," Ochocinco said. "We have to play better football on the offensive side of the ball. Especially next week and the week after. We're playing great teams that are extremely explosive on offense and really good on defense. Not that we have to match them score for score, but we have to find a line of consistency and stick with it.
"We're playing OK football. We're not playing playoff football for sure. Not yet. Nowhere near. We'll keep working at it. We'll be all right."
It was a tough day for Crocker. It took him seven seasons to get on a team with a winning record. And in the game his fourth team finally won its ninth game to guarantee a winning season, he had to leave in the second quarter with an ankle injury. When he left the locker room about an hour after the game, he had yet to hear what the MRI said and was waiting for a call from the doctor.
He also had to agree with the assessment that the Bengals play down to their opposition as the locker room began to find out that the Steelers lost to the Raiders. As The Ocho said, "We got that playing-to-the-level-of-our-opponents speech at halftime" from Lewis.
"You look at the games that we play and the opponent wasn't as good as us on paper," Crocker said. "Yeah, it worries everybody. It worries the coaches. It worries us. Because now we're going to face opponents that are really good. Minnesota, San Diego. It's any given Sunday, but in the same sense December isn't going to be a walk through. It's not going to be coast into the playoffs. You can say that about Pittsburgh. They (also) lost to Kansas City.
"It's not tough to get up for those games. It's just tough to maintain the focus and intensity."