First-place Bengals preparing for pair of tough road matchups

CINCINNATI -- 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."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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