CINCINNATI -- Cedric Benson sprinted onto the field during pregame introductions, a sign he was inspired after missing two games with a bad hip. Tough carry by tough carry, he ran into Cincinnati Bengals history.
The running back tied the franchise record with his fifth 100-yard game of the season on Sunday, setting up a 23-13 victory over the Detroit Lions that had even greater significance for the franchise.
The Bengals (9-3) assured themselves of a winning record for only the second time in 19 years. The other one came in 2005, when Cincinnati won the AFC North and lost its opening playoff game to Pittsburgh. The latest win left Cincinnati with a 2½-game lead over Baltimore, which plays at Green Bay on Monday night.
"It puts us in a great position," said Chad Ochocinco, who had a season-high 137 yards on nine catches. "We don't have to depend on other people to win. We control our own destiny at this point. It's a very, very, very good feeling for us as a team and a city. It's pretty cool, man."
A commitment to running the ball has carried them to the doorstep of the playoffs. In each of the past three games, a different Cincinnati running back has topped 100 yards, the first time that's happened in the NFL since Green Bay did it in 2006.
Benson finished with 110 yards on 36 carries and became the focal point once Cincinnati got ahead.
"I love carrying the ball that much," Benson said. "It usually just means we're putting a team away, and I love putting teams away. You know, you've got to put the hay in the barn. That's what my old high school coach used to call it. And anytime we're carrying the ball that much, I think we're putting the hay away."
After a solid first quarter, the Lions (2-10) got put away in a game that ended badly for them. Rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford aggravated his injured non-throwing shoulder with 3:37 to go and didn't return.
Stafford's left shoulder was driven into the ground on a hit by Dhani Jones as he threw a fourth-down incompletion. Stafford lay on the ground for a couple minutes before walking off slowly.
"I don't think it's any worse for wear," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "It's going to be a situation where it's going to be painful. But we'll make sure it's not something else when we get back [to Detroit]. Our quarterback got hit way too often today and there were times when he got hit for no reason."
Stafford was on the bench while backup Daunte Culpepper led an inconsequential touchdown drive in the final minutes. Stafford wasn't sure whether the sore shoulder would prompt him to sit out a few games.
"That's something I'll have to think about," said Stafford, who was 11 of 26 for 143 yards with two interceptions. "It doesn't affect my [throwing] motion. Handing off or throwing, I'm fine. Obviously everybody wants to be healthy. I dare you to find somebody who's completely healthy at this point. It's just really painful."
The Bengals won another game with an approach so simple that the fans sometimes booed.
They did just enough against the league's worst pass defense -- Carson Palmer threw for 220 yards and a touchdown to Ochocinco -- and went into grind-it-out mode in the second half, after coach Marvin Lewis chewed them out for their lackluster effort.
"We got that playing-to-the-level-of-our-opponents speech at halftime," Ochocinco said.
The first quarter of the Bengals' least-appealing home game -- they needed an extension to sell out and avoid a television blackout -- had fans wondering why they'd bought those tickets. Paul Brown Stadium filled with boos as the Lions outplayed the Bengals at the outset.
The Bengals got no pressure on Stafford, who had plenty of time to throw a 54-yard touchdown pass to Calvin Johnson for a 7-0 lead. Cincinnati's offensive line got pushed around -- Cincinnati managed only 47 yards in the opening quarter.
One play by a 6-foot-7 rookie changed the mood.
Third-round pick Michael Johnson batted one of Stafford's passes in the air, and defensive end Jonathan Fanene caught it cleanly, tucked the ball into the crook of his left arm and ran 45 yards untouched for his first career score.
Palmer's 36-yard touchdown pass to Ochocinco on the next series put the Bengals in control. It was only their third touchdown pass in the last five games, a sign of how much they've been leaning on the run this season.
Benson and the running game took it from there.
Lions CB William James suffered a pinched nerve in the second half, another blow to an injury-depleted defense. ... Rookie Bernard Scott and newcomer Larry Johnson also have run for more than 100 yards in the Bengals' past three games. Their seven 100-yard games overall this season also match the franchise record. ... Ochocinco hadn't caught a touchdown pass since Oct. 25 against Chicago, going the next four games without one.