Peyton Manning threw four interceptions, including a late pick-six, as Denver fell 37-28 (Game Book) at Cincinnati on Monday night, clinching the #1 seed for New England in the process. With the loss, Denver must now either beat Oakland next Sunday or have Pittsburgh knock off Cincy in the night game if they're to lock up the #2 seed and a first-round bye.
In a worst case scenario, a Denver loss and Cincy win would give the Bengals the #2 seed, dropping the Broncos into the #3 seed and force them to host a Wild Card game for the first time since the 2011 playoffs.
The game opened in dull fashion with a pair of punts, but a pair of big plays opened the scoring. On Cincy’s second possession, Andy Dalton threw a hospital ball toward A.J. Green, and Aqib Talib made a diving, one-handed interception. Talib weaved his way 33 yards for a touchdown and his second pick-six of the year (video).
Cincy only needed one play to knot the game at seven, as Jeremy Hill busted an 85-yard run, forcing missed tackles by Todd Davis and Rahim Moore (video). Thrust into the starting lineup by injuries to Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan, Davis called the defensive plays for Denver on Monday night.
The rest of the first quarter was a snoozer, but its penultimate play was a 21-yard punt return by Pacman Jones which set the Bengals up in Denver territory. Cincy made a pair of first downs on their 10-play drive, and Mike Nugent was good from 37 to put his team up 10-7.
Two snaps later, Manning was off-target on a simple out pass to Julius Thomas, who was only able to get one hand on the ball, which was wrestled free by Reggie Nelson for an interception at the Denver 22. After a pair of big scrambles for first downs by Andy Dalton, Jermaine Gresham found himself all alone in the end zone for a two-yard play-action touchdown. Midway through the second quarter, Denver found itself down 17-7 and getting dominated.
The Broncos’ next possession was short-circuited by a holding call on Ryan Clady, who was beaten all too quickly and easily by Wallace Gilberry.
Two big gainers by Giovani Bernard carried Cincy back into field goal range, and Nugent’s 49-yarder stretched the Bengals’ lead out to 20-7.
Given 63 seconds to come up with something, Manning passed the Broncos to the Cincy 31, but Connor Barth was unable to match Nugent from 49. After 11 makes to start his Broncos career, it was Barth’s first miss.
By halftime, Denver had allowed 166 rushing yards, 33 more than their season high for an entire game (Week 2 against Kansas City).
Omar Bolden kickstarted the Broncos after the break, with a 77-yard kick return to the Cincy 21. Three plays later, C.J. Anderson punched it in from a yard out, and Denver was back in the game at 20-14 (video).
Just as quickly, though, Jones delivered an 80-yard kickoff return, and Bernard roasted Steven Johnson for a 22-yard catch-and-run score to prop Cincy's lead back to 13 (video).
At that point, Manning & Co. finally started to show some rhythm and life, with passes to Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders (video) accounting for most of a 79-yard touchdown drive. Sanders scored from four yards out, drawing the Broncos back to within a score at 27-21 (video).
It appeared the Bengals would once again respond with a touchdown, needing seven plays to move into a goal-to-go situation. But on the eighth play, Von Miller stripped Jeremy Hill for what seemed for a time like the biggest moment of the Broncos' season (video).
Manning passes of 11, 46, and 15 yards to Demaryius brought Denver to its own goal-to-go, but they would not blow their opportunity as Cincy had just moments earlier. Once again, Peyton hit Sanders for an easy touchdown, this time from five yards out (video). With touchdowns on three straight possessions, the Broncos had flipped an apparent blowout to a one-point advantage at 28-27.
After forcing Cincy into a four-and-out, Denver had a chance to expand upon their lead a bit. But a poor pass from Manning was picked off by Pacman, who returned the ball to the Denver 11 (video). Fortunately for the Broncos, a taunting penalty was called on Reggie Nelson, backing the Bengals all the way out of FG position to the plus-43.
Again, the Denver defense held up, forcing Cincy to punt. However, the Broncos also went three-and-out, and Brandon Tate brought Britton Colquitt's latest dud back for a 49-yard return and net punt of negative-5 yards. While the Bengals were unable to move the ball, they didn't need one to take back the lead, which they did, on Nugent's 23-yarder.
Following another pair of punts, the Broncos took over trailing 30-28 at their own 20 with 4:04 remaining. On 3rd-and-1, however, Manning threw a puzzling pass in Thomas's direction and off his back foot, and Dre Kirkpatrick nabbed it for an easy 30-yard pick-six (video).
Denver's last-gasp attempt ended similarly, as Kirkpatrick made a diving interception of a throw intended for Thomas, and Cincy clinched its fourth straight postseason berth (video).
Cincy topped 200 rushing yards for the second straight week; Jeremy Hill ran for 147 yards, while Giovani Bernard totaled 81 yards from scrimmage
Demaryius Thomas questioned the phantom facemask penalty called against him, thwarting a key fourth-quarter drive for Denver.
Denver's defensive players were proud to hold Cincy to field goals when facing short fields, but rued Jeremy Hill's 85-yard touchdown
Peyton Manning says he probably should have thrown to either Emmanuel Sanders or Julius Thomas instead of Demaryius on the pick-six.
Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward graded out well, while Manning did not