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CINCINNATI (AP) — The Bengals are back in the playoffs, and so many of their fans are wondering already whether they'll lose in the first round like usual.
A rookie running back is providing hope that things could, at long last, be different this time around.
The Bengals (10-4-1) are morphing into a very different type of team as they head into the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. Instead of relying so much on up-and-down Andy Dalton, they're giving the ball to Jeremy Hill and letting him carry the load.
Hill ran for 147 yards, including an 85-yard touchdown, during a 37-28 win over Denver on Monday night that sent Cincinnati back into the postseason. It's the kind of approach that offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has been trying to develop all season.
"We just have a new attitude," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "The running game has really sparked kind of a feistiness, a will to make something happen for us. At times, we haven't had that, for whatever reason."
They'll need it in the next two weeks. They go to Pittsburgh for a Sunday night game that will decide the AFC North championship. The winner gets the title and a home playoff game, while the loser takes a wild card and goes on the road.
New England has clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Bengals will get the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye if they beat the Steelers and Denver loses at home to Oakland. The Broncos get the No. 2 seed with a victory or a Bengals loss.
Cincinnati hasn't won a playoff game since the 1990 season, tied for the sixth-longest streak of postseason futility in NFL history, according to STATS. They're 0-5 during that time, with all of the losses coming under coach Marvin Lewis.
Unlike those other years, they seem to have developed a running game that can carry them.
The strategy to beat the Bengals in the playoffs has been to shut down the running game and put all of the pressure on Dalton. Cincinnati showed a very different approach on Monday night — give it to Hill and allow Dalton to throw low-risk passes to tight ends and running backs. Fourteen of his 17 completions were to a tight end or running back.
And Hill showed how much he's changed the offense. The second-round pick from LSU ran for 140 yards for the fourth time this season, joining Eric Dickerson (1983) and Curtis Martin (1995) as the only NFL rookies to do it, according to STATS. He became the 10th Bengals player to rush for 1,000 yards in a season and the first since Corey Dillon.
The Bengals had been blown out in their two previous prime time games this season, with the offense failing to do much of anything. Hill was the biggest difference on Monday night.
"Especially with the way we've been performing in prime-time situations, I just knew that somebody had to ignite the team," Hill said. "Somebody had to inspire everyone else. If that had to be me, then so be it. I'm just a guy who plays with a lot of emotion.
"Guys tapped me early on in the game and said, 'We need you.' I tried to respond and help out the team."
They're going to need him on Sunday in Pittsburgh when they try to win the AFC North for the second year in a row — something they've never done. The Steelers came to Cincinnati on Dec. 7 and won 42-21, limiting the Bengals to 86 yards rushing. The Bengals have run for 244 yards and 207 in the two games since then.
"We knew we were going to have to take that same attitude into this game," rookie center Russell Bodine said. "It's a mindset. We had our mind made up before we went into it."
Notes: The Bengals have reduced the price of their cheapest playoff tickets — from $86 last year to $56 — and are allowing fans to buy single-game tickets instead of two-game playoff packages. Last year, the Bengals, Colts and Packers needed an extra day to sell out their first-round games. ... Dalton joins Baltimore's Joe Flacco as the only starting quarterbacks to lead their teams to the playoffs in each of their first four seasons.
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