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Bengals able to keep toehold atop AFC North

CINCINNATI — Done with all the drama, the Bengals are grinding their way into the playoff conversation.

Cedric Benson topped 100 yards again Sunday, and the Bengals scored on their first three possessions, setting up a 17-7 victory over Baltimore that kept surprising Cincinnati atop the AFC North and undefeated against division foes.

With a win next Sunday against the Steelers, the Bengals (6-2) would be in position to make the playoffs for only the second time in the past 19 years. They won the division in 2005 with a team that still had a lot to learn.

"We're much more mature," said quarterback Carson Palmer, who improved to 8-3 career against the Ravens. "We're a better team. We were a good team back then; we were kind of young and dumb. This team has more guys that understand how rare this opportunity is."

Cincinnati would be in control of the division with a win at Pittsburgh (5-2), which plays Denver tonight. The Bengals are 4-0 in division games, including a two-game sweep of the Ravens (4-4).

"That's pretty cool," receiver Chad Ochocinco said. "I like being in the driver's seat. Today was a statement game. I want every game to be a statement game."

The Ravens have frittered away every advantage they gained by starting the season 3-0. There's been a lot of self-destruction involved — dropped passes, missed kicks and penalties galore.

"We're not in a great spot," said Joe Flacco, who was frustrated all afternoon and threw a pair of interceptions. "We're in a tough spot."

They've been at their worst against the Bengals, who took advantage of three Ravens penalties to pull off a last-minute touchdown in Baltimore on Oct. 11, a 17-14 victory that gained national notice. By sweeping the series, Cincinnati suggested it has staying power.

"We're not surprised, we're really not," safety Chris Crocker said. "Everyone on the outside is, 'Oh, the Bengals got another one, but they'll fall apart any time.' "

They were solid throughout yesterday.

Benson was coming off the best game of his career: 189 yards against his former Bears team, a dominating performance that sent Cincinnati into its bye on an upbeat note. Refreshed by a weekend off, he was at it again, running for 117 yards and a touchdown.

Up 17-0 at halftime, it was a matter of holding on. The Bengals did, with a lot of help from the self-destructive Ravens, who had 80 yards in penalties and missed a field goal. Their last chance slipped away when Flacco was sacked on three consecutive plays.

Last season, the Ravens went 11-5 and made the playoffs as a wild card, losing to the Steelers in the AFC title game. By losing four of their last five, they've made themselves a long shot to win the division.

"None of us played well," defensive end Trevor Pryce said. "They had (solid) techniques and played physical. And they are a physical team — don't let anybody tell you they aren't."

Cincinnati scored on its first three possessions — touchdown, touchdown, field goal — against a defense that has struggled against the run lately, a surprising change. The Ravens hadn't allowed a 100-yard rusher for 39 consecutive games, a streak that Benson broke by piling up 120 in that win at Baltimore.

Now, the Ravens have allowed a 100-yard rusher in three of the last four games. They've also hurt themselves on big plays -- two pass interference penalties extended Cincinnati's second touchdown drive.

That's not all.

Ray Rice's 1-yard touchdown run cut it to 17-7 early in the fourth quarter, and the Ravens got their chance to make it close when Ed Reed stripped Chad Ochocinco after a catch at midfield. Steve Hauschka hooked a 38-yard field goal try with 6:12 left.

In the past, the Bengals would have been the ones self-destructing.

"They're not like last year, that's clear," Rice said.

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