CINCINNATI — The Bengals are back in the playoffs, and so many of their fans are wondering 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 different 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 homefield 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. They’re 0-5 during that time, 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 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 has 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.
“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.”