Ron Chenoy/USA Today

Opportunity Slips Through Bengals' Hands, 20-17, In OT

Monday's outcome hinged on one of the most routine plays in football.

The Bengals botched a shot to secure some key playoff advantages, watching opportunity slip through their hands Monday night in a 20-17 overtime loss to the Broncos at Mile High Stadium in Denver.

The Bengals had their way with the Broncos for one half while building a 14-point lead, only to watch Denver get back into it with a pair of second-half touchdowns, forcing overtime. There were some exotic plays, including wide receiver Mohamed Sanu's six-yard touchdown run on a direct snap that helped put Cincinnati ahead 14-0.

The outcome hinged on one of the most routine plays in football. Center Russell Bodine's second-and-10 shotgun snap from the Bengals' 33 yard line eluded Cincinnati quarterback A.J. McCarron on the second possession of overtime.

McCarron, making his second start in place of injured Andy Dalton, momentarily took his eyes off the football while checking coverage on Bengals receiver A.J. Green. The ball whizzed through the quarterback's hands. McCarron attempted a recovery, but he was beaten to the football by the Denver defense.

And, with a ferociously sudden finality, that was that for the Bengals. The game was over, propelling the Broncos to the playoffs and sending Cincinnati home wondering, what if. The difference was a 37-yard field goal on the first overtime possession by Denver's Brandon McManus, and the Bengals' failure to seize the moment.

"We knew what we had in front of us," Cincinnati defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. "An opportunity to get the bye."

Needing a win to vault past New England in the chase for the AFC's top seed, the Bengals, who've clinched the AFC North, couldn't handle it. "It is what it is now," said Dunlap, who sacked Broncos quarterback Brock Osweiler three times. "Now, we're going to move on."

Moving up was the idea. Cincinnati had its sights set on a first Monday night road win in 25 years, the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs, a week off before hosting a divisional round playoff game at home and the easiest possible path to the AFC championship game.

But the bad-luck Bengals (11-4) seemed to have discovered their old snake-bitten ways of late, this time in the form of a snap decision benefiting the Broncos (11-4), who leap-frogged ahead of Cincinnati in the AFC pecking order, knocking the Bengals to third.

With so much within Cincinnati's grasp, the game ended with the football in the hands of Denver's DeMarcus Ware, who pounced on the loose ball once it got past McCarron. “I felt like I let my team down,” said McCarron, who did not have concussed tight end Tyler Eifert at his disposal. “My fault. I told the guys that after the game.”

Green's five-yard TD grab capping an 80-yard drive and Mike Nugent's extra-point kick gave the Bengals a 7-0 first-quarter lead. Green had five catches for 57 yards, all in the opening half, and was ineffective in the second half against Denver's top-ranked defense. Sanu's score, finishing a 90-yard drive, and a 23-yard field goal by McManus set the halftime score, with the Bengals in charge, 14-3.

The Broncos came out with a different demeanor in the second half, marching down field on the opening drive and going 81 yards before scoring on Osweiler's eight-yard TD pass to receiver Emmanuel Sanders. McManus' kick made it 14-10.

Denver needed two plays to take its first lead, 17-14, getting a 39-yard TD run by running back C.J. Anderson before the tack-on by McManus. Anderson carried nine times for 73 yards, but lost a key fumble. Nugent's 52-yard field goal with 6:46 to play tied it 17-all and ended the scoring in regulation.

The Broncos got the ball first in overtime. They cashed in on McManus' second field goal on a drive that was helped along by a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty whistled against Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict. That set up the Broncos first-and-10 at the Cincinnati 44. McManus' miss from 45 yards at the end of regulation sent the game into the extra session.

The Bengals threw incomplete on first down on their first overtime possession. Then they threw it away with the mishandled snap by a quarterback who wouldn't have been in the game if not for Dalton's broken right thumb.

The Broncos won with Osweiler, making his sixth start while subbing for injured Peyton Manning (foot). Osweiler finished 27-of-39 passing for 299 yards and no interceptions.

Denver outgained Cincinnati by nearly 100 yards, 390-294, and held the Bengals to 3.3 yards per carry. The Broncos possessed the football nearly 10 minutes more than Cincinnati. The result: They earn the AFC's top seed with a win over the Chargers and a Patriots loss at Miami the final week.

The Bengals received 63 rushing yards from Jeremy Hill, a 22-for-35 passing performance and 200 yards with no interceptions from McCarron, and possibly more bad news.

The first-year quarterback said after the game that he injured the wrist on his non-throwing left hand while going for the fumble on the game's final play, and is scheduled to have an MRI on Tuesday. Dalton is not expected back until the playoffs, at the earliest, if then.

The only other quarterback on the Bengals' roster who would be available for Sunday's regular-season finale at home against the Ravens is untested former practice squad QB Keith Wenning, whose next NFL snap will be his first.

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