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CINCINNATI (AP) — Jeremy Hill got the ball on Cincinnati's first four plays, setting the Bengals on course for an opening touchdown drive in Cleveland.
Hill kept at it all game, running for 148 yards during a 30-0 victory that kept Cincinnati atop the AFC North and left the Bengals one victory away from another playoff appearance.
Credit a rookie who has kept them running in front.
"Jeremy did a great job running the ball," quarterback Andy Dalton said. "We need to keep that going."
Hill leads all NFL rookies with 877 yards rushing, ranking 11th overall. His latest big game kept the Bengals (9-4-1) a half-game ahead of Pittsburgh and Baltimore. He joined Rudi Johnson as the only Bengals running backs to have three games of at least 148 yards in a season.
He's the first NFL rookie running back with at least three 140-yard games since Cadillac Williams did it with Tampa Bay in 2005.
Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has decided to make Hill the featured back the rest of the way, replacing Giovani Bernard as the starter. They'd been splitting the role during games, but it wasn't working out.
Jackson figured that giving Hill most of the carries would help him get into a flow.
"It's what I've been accustomed to my whole life, just being the guy and getting the bulk of the carries," Hill said. "Anytime I can do that, I can feel the defense out. It's just stuff you can't really do if you're only getting five or six carries."
The game on Sunday was significant for the Bengals' offense. Cleveland dominated during a 24-3 in Cincinnati on Nov. 6, with the Bengals held to 165 total yards. They went to Cleveland determined to run. They had linemen pulling on various carries.
"We hit them with a lot of stuff they haven't seen before and a lot of stuff we have run over the year," Hill said. "It kept them off-balance, and it kept them adjusting."
The second-round pick is averaging 5 yards per carry. The last Bengals running back to average that for a season was James Brooks (5.1 yards) in 1990, which is the last season when the Bengals won a playoff game.
The one outstanding issue: holding onto the ball. Hill has four fumbles this season, though the Bengals have lost only one of them.
"He's got to hold onto the football though, or he'll find himself standing by me more often than he wants," coach Marvin Lewis said. "We can't have the ball on the ground. That's important for anyone that's carrying the ball for us."
The Bengals host Denver (11-3) and the league's second-best run defense on Monday night. The Bengals can clinch their fourth straight playoff berth — a franchise record — with a victory. They end the season in Pittsburgh.
A team that is known more for Dalton-to-A.J. Green is morphing into one that could be known more for Gio-and-Hill.
"Honestly, the running game has put us in the situation we've been in and we need to continue to believe in it and let it be a part of who we are," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "As we've grown throughout the year, the running game has continued to evolve and we're getting better at it.
"In the games we've run it more, we've played really well. I think guys are starting to get more confident in it, like with anything else."
Notes: The Bengals will clinch at least a wild card berth with a victory over the Broncos. They would clinch the division title if Pittsburgh and Baltimore both lose as well. ... Linebacker Vincent Rey is the Bengals' nominee for the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year Award for philanthropy.
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