The Denver Broncos offense, defense, and special teams each looked electric at different times Monday night.
Unfortunately, they each looked grounded and even bad more often.
Peyton Manning threw four interceptions - one returned for a touchdown - the Broncos' special teams couldn't cover a kickoff or punt, and the Broncos' defense struggled to stop the run as the Bengals ran over the Broncos 37-28 to beat Denver on Monday Night Football. With the win, the Bengals clinched a playoff berth. With the loss, the Broncos must win against the Oakland Raiders or count on a Bengals loss to the Steelers in Week 17 to clinch the AFC's second seed. They were eliminated from first seed consideration.
In the first half, the Denver Broncos defense taketh away, and the defense giveth.
First, the takeaway. Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib leaped for a tipped Andy Dalton pass, corralled it at the Denver 33-yard line, and made for the Broncos end zone. Picking up blockers, the defending AFC Defensive Player of the Week ran into the corner of the end zone. Just like that, on Dalton's second pass of the game, the Broncos were up 7-0 thanks to Talib's pick-six.
Then, the give. Exactly one offensive play later, Bengals running back Jeremy Hill took a Dalton handoff and shed potential tacklers Todd Davis and others. He found daylight and cut twice in the open field, giving Chris Harris Jr. no chance at a deep tackle. He sped 85 yards all the way to the end zone to tie the game, 7-7.
It was a sign of things to come in the first half - the Broncos needing to rely on their defense as the offense struggled. The Broncos offense failed to cross midfield in the first quarter, and Peyton Manning was intercepted in the second quarter after Julius Thomas got out-toughed by Reggie Nelson.
The answer, unfortunately, was Bengals ball, and the Bengals found Jermaine Gresham for a touchdown and a 17-7 lead a few plays later.
The Bengals' first-half domination continued, as Cincinnati took a 20-7 lead and stuffed the Broncos' offense until 31 seconds remained in the half. Then, in full "when it rains it pours" fashion, Connor Barth missed a 49-yard field goal to give the Bengals a 20-7 lead heading into halftime.
Took 29:29 for Broncos to cross midfield.— Mark Haas (@markhaastv) December 23, 2014
Peyton Manning's first half passer rating: 48.8— Vic Lombardi (@VicLombardi) December 23, 2014
Bengals 166 rushing yards in first half.— Jeff Legwold (@Jeff_Legwold) December 23, 2014
In the second half, the Denver Broncos' special teams giveth, and the special teams taketh away.
First, the give. The Broncos came out of the tunnel on fire, sparked by a huge kickoff return by Omar Bolden. Bolden headed midfield after hauling in the Bengals' kickoff inside the five-yard line, finding a hole in the Bengals coverage down the opposite sideline and returning the ball 77 yards to the Bengals' 21-yard line. Peyton Manning made short work of the short field, hitting Demaryius Thomas on a filthy double move then handing it off to C.J. Anderson for a touchdown, cutting the Bengals' lead to 20-14.
Then, the takeaway. Adam Pac-Man Jones saw Bolden and one-upped him, returning the Broncos' kickoff 80 yards and setting up Cincinnati with an equally short field. The Broncos' defense, struggling all night without Danny Trevathan or Brandon Marshall, didn't stand a chance, and Giovani Bernard broke a Steven Johnson to take a short Dalton pass 22 yards to the house.
In the second half, Peyton Manning giveth, and Peyton Manning taketh away.
First: the gives. There were times when Manning looked electric - like his old "Star Wars numbers" self.
Down big, he and Emmanuel Sanders put on a clinic, culminating in two touchdowns and the Broncos re-taking the lead in the fourth quarter.
Then: the takeaways. Four of them, to be exact, one for a Bengals touchdown, sealed Denver's fate. They were bad decisions and bad throws and atypical Manning.
In the end, the Broncos couldn't overcome their usual questionable coaching (no field goal at the end of the fourth quarter? Maybe run it in on 3rd and 1? Both decisions led to Manning picks) and worse officiating (a ghost facemask penalty took away 50 Demaryius Thomas yards as the Broncos were driving). The Broncos fell to 12-3, with no guarantee of a playoff bye with a finale against a Raiders team that has won three of their last five games - wins against the Chiefs, 49ers, and Bills.