AP Sports Writer
CINCINNATI — Jeremy Hill gave the Bengals a glimpse of the only thing they’ve been missing on offense.
The second-year running back had his best showing of the season on Sunday during a 31-7 victory over the St. Louis Rams. He ran for 86 yards and could have reached 100 if he hadn’t twisted his left ankle in the fourth quarter.
It was a breakthrough for Hill, whose previous high this season was 63 yards.
“I think it’s getting in the direction we want it to go,” Hill said on Monday. “I think it will be big going down the stretch.”
The Bengals (9-2) emerged from a two-game slide and reasserted themselves atop the AFC North. With Pittsburgh’s loss at Seattle, the Bengals lead the division by three games over the Steelers (6-5).
They could clinch their second division title in three years when the Steelers visit on Dec. 13. The Bengals won in Pittsburgh 16-10 on Nov. 1, putting them in control of the division.
They’ve already got a bigger picture in mind. New England’s loss at Denver on Sunday left the Patriots (10-1) one game ahead for home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
The Broncos (9-2) are tied with the Bengals for the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye. The Bengals play in Denver on Monday, Dec. 28. Cincinnati also plays at Cleveland, at San Francisco and home against Baltimore.
“I think we definitely want to lock in our division,” Hill said. “That’s our first goal at the beginning of every season, to win the AFC North. So we’re putting ourselves in position to do that first, and putting ourselves in position to be where we want to be in the playoffs.
“We’ve got to continue to doing what we did yesterday.”
Andy Dalton threw for three touchdowns on Sunday, but the biggest change in the offense was how Cincinnati ran the ball. The Bengals piled up 140 yards, their third-highest total of the season. They averaged 4.5 yards per carry, also their third-highest. Hill had a 15-yard run that matched his season high.
“We really just said we had to run the ball efficiently and not put ourselves in similar situations we got ourselves into the last couple weeks with third-and-forever,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “We’re getting better and better at it.
“At this time of year, it’s going to be important to be able to rush the ball.”
The running game was a big part of the offense last season, when the Bengals went to the playoffs for the fourth straight season and lost to Indianapolis in the opening round again. It has slipped significantly with more emphasis on the passing game this season.
Last season, the Bengals had four games with at least 186 yards rushing as a team. Their high this season is 175. They had six individual 100-yard games — five by Hill. This season, they’ve had only one, with Giovani Bernard running for 123 yards in the second game of the season against San Diego.
The Bengals ran for 2,174 yards last season, averaging 4.4 per carry. With five games left, they have only 1,276 yards and a 4-yard average per carry. Their overall success has muted some of the concerns about the lack of a consistent running game.
“It’s not about what the numbers are,” Hill said. “I haven’t even looked at them.”
Notes: The Bengals signed CB Asa Jackson to the practice squad. He was a Ravens fifth-round pick in 2012 and was waived by Baltimore on Nov. 20. … They also released G Dan France from the practice squad and waived LB Sean Porter. … Coach Marvin Lewis said CB Adam “Pacman” Jones played well on Sunday despite a foot injury that forced him to miss the previous game. “His foot’s a little sore, as we knew it would be,” Lewis said.