Before this week, Peyton Manning had never lost to the Cincinnati Bengals. But tonight, they gave him more than he could handle, defeating the Denver Broncos 37-28, clinching their fourth-straight playoff berth. For the Broncos, it was a slop-fest, from beginning to end and not what John Elway wants to see from his squad, staring down the barrel of the post-season.
Traditionally, the Broncos have been slow starters, under Manning, seeing most of their production and big plays coming in the second half of games. Tonight's throw-down on Monday Night Football was no different, despite Aqib Talib's pick-six on the Broncos first defensive series. After that play, the Broncos struggled on both sides of the ball to find rhythm and momentum.
Going into the game, the Broncos were the No. 2 rush defense in the NFL, but gave up an 85-yard touchdown run in the first quarter to Jeremy Hill. It didn't get any better, as the Bengals rushed for 166 yards in the first half and finished the game with 207.
For what it's worth, Talib is tied with Chicago's Charles Tillman for the most pick-sixes in the NFL since 2009 (6). Talib played tough all game long and did his job against a banged up A.J. Green.
Between missed tackles, poor angles and great execution on the part of the Bengals, the Broncos uncharacteristically failed to stop the run and it gave the Bengals offensive momentum and kept them on the field for long stretches of time, wearing down the defenders.
On offense, the Broncos started out with what we've seen from them over the last few weeks; jumbo packages bent on establishing the run. And just as recent weeks have proven, Manning could not find his groove.
Manning threw his first interception in the second quarter, under-throwing Julius Thomas. Bengals safety, Reggie Nelson, made a phenomenal play, stripping the ball from Thomas and gaining possession on his way out of bounds.
The theme for the first half was a Broncos offensive line unable to protect Manning and failing to execute in the run game. Bengals defensive coordinator, Paul Guenther, confounded Manning by disguising his coverages and intentions. It was a great defensive game-plan.
Left tackle, Ryan Clady, came into the game hobbled by a thigh injury, and just didn't look himself, giving up pressure and getting flagged for blatant holding calls, one of which negated a big play to Demaryius Thomas down-field.
After Connor Barth missed his first field goal as a Bronco, from 49 yards out, it felt like nothing could go right for Denver. The Broncos were held to zero points in the first half.
Thankfully, John Fox deferred to the second half and the Broncos came out swinging. Following a magnificent kick return by Omar Bolden, offensive coordinator, Adam Gase, abandoned the run-first mentality and opened up the offense, spreading the Bengals out. It was just what the doctor ordered; for a time.
For the first time in weeks, Manning was able to get into rhythm, and that trend continued throughout much of the second half. He found Emmanuel Sanders for touchdown No. 38 and 39 on the season and Demaryius Thomas eclipsed the 100-yard receiving mark for the ninth time this season.
But the Bengals always seemed to have an answer, whether it was from timely punt and kick returns, or interceptions (Manning tossed 4 on the night). The Broncos poor special teams coverage definitely hurt their chances of winning this game. It's an issue that must get remedied before the playoffs.
You have to give it up to Marvin Lewis and the Bengals. They have a reputation of falling short in the big games. But tonight, with all the chips down, they beat the Broncos in all three phases. It was an impressive performance and I have to take my hat off to them.
Von Miller made a big play in the third quarter, stripping the ball from Hill in the redzone, which led to the Broncos go-ahead score and their only lead of the night. But he and DeMarcus Ware were ineffectual in putting pressure on Andy Dalton. Over the last three games, Ware has been held without a sack. Miller hasn't gotten to the QB in two.
Tonight, a big reason for that was a great offensive game-plan called by offensive coordinator, Hue Jackson. He took advantage of the Broncos aggressive pass rush by calling screens and running Dalton on the read-option.
Despite a poorly executed game, the Broncos had a chance to win it at the end, down by 2, with under 3 minutes to go. But Manning threw an interception on a play where he and Demaryius Thomas seemed to have a communication breakdown. It was returned for a TD, swinging the point differential to 9 and putting the game out of reach.
Perhaps fans can take heart in that. Even though the Broncos played horribly all game, they had a chance to win it at the end. Sometimes teams and players fall short. Tonight was certainly one of those occasions.
The bottom line is that the Broncos were out-played and out-coached. The Bengals wanted this victory more, plain and simple. They had a lot more riding on the result than the Broncos did, fighting to maintain the lead in the AFC North.
Moving forward, it's hard to get a bead on the Broncos. Their stingy defense was porous and sloppy, although being without Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan certainly played a role in that.
And on offense, fans are left wondering what the Broncos identity is. Are they a spread-them-out, throw the ball offense, or run-first, smash-mouth? Its a puzzle.
One thing's for sure, these are questions that no NFL team, poised for a playoff run, should have to ask themselves. Do the Broncos have what it takes to return to the Super Bowl, knowing that they'll have to likely go through New England, who secured the AFC's No. 1 seed with Denver's loss? Only time will tell.
For now, the Broncos will look to secure the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye, if they can defeat the Oakland Raiders next week at home.