Up next: Beating SF puts Broncos in playoffs

The Denver Broncos are alive and well in the AFC playoff race, thanks to an early Christmas gift. All of the tiebreaker situations in the wild-card race don't affect the Broncos, as long as they win.

"It's sure nice to control your own destiny, that's for sure," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said.

Denver looked like it was heading to overtime last Sunday when the Cincinnati Bengals scored with 41 seconds remaining. But the snap on the extra point was wide and went through holder Kyle Larson's hands and the Broncos held on to a 24-23 victory.

"When I saw it happen, I was like 'You've got to be kidding me,'" tight end Stephen Alexander said.

The Broncos might have a playoff berth clinched by the time they take the field next Sunday against San Francisco. The Broncos clinch a playoff berth with one Jets loss and a Jaguars win over the Chiefs next week.

Of course, the Broncos want to wrap up a playoff berth with another win. They've felt they have been in a must-win situation for the past two weeks.

"We knew we were going to have to win this game to keep our playoff hopes alive," quarterback Jay Cutler said. "We battled all game."

One of the big keys to the Broncos being in a spot to clinch a playoff berth is the play of Cutler, who had another impressive game. He had a couple of touchdown passes in the first half, but his best moments came in the third quarter during a 99-yard drive that gave the Broncos the lead for good.

With the Broncos backed up at their own 1-yard line after the Bengals downed a punt, Cutler was at ease.

"He's been like that from day one," tight end Stephen Alexander said. "He's calm in the huddle. So it doesn't surprise me. But it was huge."

The Broncos got some breathing room with a 14-yard run by Mike Bell, then Cutler lofted a pass to tight end Tony Scheffler for 25 yards. He hit David Kircus for 18 yards later in the drive, and a 17-yard pass to Javon Walker on third and 11 to set up a two-yard touchdown run by Mike Bell.

"I didn't do a whole lot that drive, to tell you the truth," Cutler said. "We were just running the ball so well right there."

The Broncos would probably rate Cutler's contribution a little higher. Cutler, who was making his fourth career start, has made incredible strides since his first start. Cutler threw an interception on Denver's first play, but bounced back to complete 12 of 23 passes for 179 yards and two touchdowns.

He became the first rookie and second player in NFL history, joining Mark Rypien, to throw multiple touchdown passes in each of his first four games.

"This guy is something special," Shanahan said.

The Broncos got plenty of luck in Sunday's win, but they'll take it. Cincinnati had four turnovers, Carson Palmer missed many open receivers and a 75-yard touchdown was taken off the board because of an illegal motion penalty. But in the end, the Broncos knew they were one win -- or maybe some help -- away from going to the playoffs for the fourth straight season.

"When you play hard, good things happen," Broncos safety John Lynch said. "Obviously, a little luck enters there."

The Broncos will be the fifth seed in the AFC with a win over the 49ers next Sunday. They'll also be in the playoffs if the Chiefs lose to Jacksonville on Sunday. The Broncos would probably take the charity, but they're prepared to win and seal the spot.

"We've got to grind," Lynch said. "We got ourselves in that situation."

If the season ended today, the Broncos would be the fifth seed and would play at New England, which is the fourth seed. The Colts could also end up as the fourth seed in the AFC.

PLAYER NOTES

--- CB Darrent Williams returned to the lineup after missing last week's game with a toe injury. Williams got an interception on Cincinnati's first drive. He sat out Cincinnati's last drive because of back spasms.
--- CB Champ Bailey matched up against Chad Johnson for most of Sunday's game. He picked off his ninth pass this season, a career high, in the first quarter. Johnson had three catches for 32 yards.
--- TE Tony Scheffler continued his strong finish to his rookie season. Scheffler, a favorite target of rookie quarterback Jay Cutler, caught a 1-yard touchdown in the second quarter against Cincinnati.
--CB Domonique Foxworth was treated for hyperventilation after Sunday's game. He was having trouble breathing after the game and laid down. He was attended to by the training staff as the Broncos players looked on. He was fine and didn't have to go to the hospital.
--RB Mike Bell played most of the second half against Cincinnati and was effective. Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said he still believes in starter Tatum Bell, but Tatum Bell has fumbled in two straight games and is on a short leash.
--- WR Javon Walker caught a long touchdown pass from Jay Cutler on a perfect stop-and-go route that froze Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph. Walker is Denver's top threat on offense and Cutler is getting more comfortable with him. Walker hurt his wrist in the third quarter but returned to the game.
--- OT Adam Meadows was active against Cincinnati but didn't start. The Broncos kept right tackle George Foster in the starting lineup, and might continue with that until Meadows shows he is 100 percent.
--- CB Karl Paymah played late in the game against Cincinnati because Darrent Williams had back spasms. Paymah is the dime cornerback, but the Broncos don't play much dime defense.
--- LB D.J. Williams didn't play much against Cincinnati. He comes off the field in nickel situations, and the Broncos used a nickel defense almost the entire game. Williams can't get on the field in nickel situations because Ian Gold and Al Wilson stay in.


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