First-place Bengals have 2 tough road games

The easy times are over for the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Bengals secured their second winning record in 19 years by

winning two of three during a stretch of games against struggling

teams, including a 23-13 victory on Sunday over the Detroit Lions.

Now comes crunch time: On the road against Minnesota and San

Diego.

And the level of play that got them through the last three isn’t

going to work against those first-place teams.

“If there’s anything we’re guilty of, it’s playing to the level

of our opponents,” quarterback Carson Palmer said. “When we’ve

played good teams, we’ve played better. It was hard not to look

forward to these two upcoming games.”

The next two weeks will go a long way in deciding whether the

AFC North leaders clinch a playoff spot and get some home-field

advantage. The Bengals (9-3) trail Indianapolis (12-0) for the best

record in the AFC and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

They’re tied with San Diego (9-3) for the second-best record,

making the next two weeks very important.

“At this point in the season, you want to peak,” Palmer said.

“You want to play your best football in late December and January.

We have two big weeks ahead of us with Minnesota and San

Diego.”

In the past three, they’ve been less than the best.

The defense and the running game have been their two constants

against down-and-out teams. The Bengals lost in Oakland 20-17, beat

Cleveland 16-7 and then finished off the Lions. Cincinnati has

given up only 187 points, the fewest in the league, and ranks sixth

overall in rushing.

The wins at home against the Browns and Lions were so humdrum

that fans repeatedly booed. The offense knows it will have to score

more points – one of their touchdowns against Detroit came on an

interception return – to keep up with the Vikings and Chargers.

Minnesota (10-2) has scored 359 points, second only to New

Orleans.

“Especially going into a dome next week, it’s going to be very

critical for us to be at our best,” receiver Chad Ochocinco said.

“I’m sure that’s what we’re going to do. I’m sure next week it

will be the other way around: We’ll be playing to the level of our

competition and not below it.”

Coach Marvin Lewis criticized his team at halftime against the

Lions for playing down to their level. Cincinnati managed only 47

yards in the first quarter, and the defense got pushed around

initially. They also had stretches against the Raiders and Browns

when they didn’t show a lot of crispness or emotion.

“I guess people would say this was a hard three-game stretch

for us as far as keeping the focus,” Lewis said. “If it was, then

it was. Now we get to go do what we need to do, and that’s go play

the Vikings. There will be no excuses now.”

The one constant on offense has been the running game.

Cincinnati has brought in an extra offensive lineman to block on

some plays, overloading the line to one side. Cedric Benson

returned after missing two games with a hip injury and ran for 110

yards against Detroit, but averaged only 3.1 yards per carry

against a defense that was geared to stop him.

“They said, ‘If we got in a situation where we have to stop the

run, we’ll throw some exotic things in there,”’ offensive tackle

Andrew Whitworth said.

The Bengals have had three different backs – rookie Bernard

Scott, newcomer Larry Johnson and Benson – top 100 yards in each of

the past three games, the first time that’s happened in the NFL

since 2006.

“That’s pretty big-time in this league because you’ve got to

run the ball to win championships, no doubt about it,” Benson

said. “The guys up front are making that happen.”

Benson thinks the challenge of playing another first-place team

will finally bring out the best in them.

“Aw, man, I surely hope so,” Benson said. “I can only speak

for myself. I know there’s some things I need to tighten down on. I

wasn’t perfect out there, and I want to be next week.”