The Denver Broncos clinched a playoff berth on Monday Night Football in Week 16, coming back from a 14-0 deficit to take a 17-14 lead against the Cincinnati Bengals, ultimately winning 20-17. With the win, the Broncos clinched a playoff berth and continued to control the AFC West with one game to play.
Backup quarterback AJ McCarron looked like a seasoned pro in the first half, while backup quarterback Brock Osweiler looked like pass-rush minced meat before halftime. The battle of the backups was unbalanced due to the quality of each passer's protection; McCarron had all day to throw. Osweiler had none.
Yet the imbalanced offensive help didn't dictate the rest of the game, as the Bengals' initial 14-0 lead was cut to a 14-10 lead by the third quarter. Denver's defense was able to recover from its initial blood-letting on third downs, and Osweiler was able to find a rhythm that led to more Broncos points. After Denver took a 17-14 lead and the Bengals tied it up 17-17, C.J. Anderson's fumble in Bengals territory nearly doomed the Broncos. But a defensive stand and an offensive drive gave the Broncos a chance in a Brandon McManus 45-yard game-winning field goal attempt... which he promptly shanked WIDE left.
In overtime, the Broncos gave McManus a shot at redemption, and he made it, giving Denver a 20-17 lead. Then a Von Miller forced fumble, which was improperly called an incomplete pass, didn't deter DeMarcus Ware from recovering a fumble the next play. The turnover sealed Denver's win in overtime and the Broncos' postseason hopes.
Brock Osweiler is 2 for 2 in primetime overtime thrillers against the AFC's best.— MileHighReport (@MileHighReport) December 29, 2015
Denver's defense started the game unable to get pressure on McCarron. The Alabama alum had plenty of time to throw and took advantage, converting at least three 3rd downs, including a big 3rd and Goal with a huge pass to AJ Green.
The Bengals' opening drive was 15 plays that ate up 80 yards and over seven minutes on the clock.
In terms of number of plays run and time of possession, this drive is already the longest against @Broncos this year.— Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) December 29, 2015
The Broncos offense struggled on its only first-quarter possession, with Osweiler taking a sack on a 2nd down rollout then clearly being out-of-sync with his O-line on a blown 3rd down screen. So the Bengals got the ball back, and they got right back to work, with AJ McCarron making big plays with his arm and his feet.
By the end of the first quarter, Denver had only had one possession, and they were being outgained 117 yards to 10. The Bengals were 4-for-4 on third downs and quickly converted a 3rd and 3 to open the 2nd quarter to improve to 5-for-5.
Five toe-tap boundary catches for Cincinnati in 14 minutes. McCarron's accurate. Receivers good.— Peter King (@SI_PeterKing) December 29, 2015
The Bengals also didn't fear getting creative, running the option and the Wildcat with touchdown-finding success. McCarron wasn't pushing the football down the field, but he was standing in the pocket, making accurate throws. And Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson was out-coaching Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
Touchdown Sanu! Bengals lead 14-0. https://t.co/WJkFN4tkbj— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) December 29, 2015
The Bengals took a 14-0 lead behind Mohamed Sanu's untouched touchdown run, and things were looking dire for the orange and blue. The look didn't improve as the 2nd half progressed, although a missed Cincy field goal gave the Broncos a glimmer of hope. Denver's field goal drive to end the first half made it 14-3 Cincy, but the Broncos would get the ball to start the...
Brock Osweiler and company came out strong in the 2nd half, flipping the script on every other "Tale of Two Halves" game the Broncos have played in December. Jordan Norwood got open and made a couple of tough catches to move the chains, and Osweiler found Emmanuel Sanders for a running score to make it 14-10 Bengals. Credit the Broncos with moving to a no-huddle offense that kept the Bengals pass rush at bay. After 28 minutes of ineptitude, the Broncos had life!
The Broncos are alive! Y'know, when he isn't taking sacks, this Osweiler fella looks pretty good. Bengals lead 14-10.— SB Nation NFL (@SBNationNFL) December 29, 2015
Denver's offense couldn't keep that momentum going at first, with a few frustrating drives, none worse than this Osweiler overthrow on 3rd down.
Not sure what's worse - missing the throw to Demaryius or not seeing Sanders pic.twitter.com/sgIvmqeMI9— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) December 29, 2015
But Denver's defense clearly came alive in the second half; AJ McCarron's hot start was a distant memory as the Bengals executed three 3-and-outs in four drives (all punts).
The Broncos then gained their first lead of the game after a big, tackle-breaking run by - who else? - C.J. Anderson. Broncos 17, Bengals 14.
McCarron and the Bengals would not go quietly into the frigid night, however, and the Bengals' backup QB put together a second-half drive reminiscent of his first-half work. Converting several big 3rd downs, including a 3rd and 11, the Bengals drove down to field goal range, where Mike Nugent was good from 52 yards to tie it 17 all. The Bengals had to settle for a field goal thanks to Harris' supreme coverage near the end zone on 2nd down.
What BEAUTIFUL coverage by @ChrisHarrisJr. Absolutely massive play.— MileHighReport (@MileHighReport) December 29, 2015
The Broncos offense took back over with five minutes to play, with C.J. Anderson breaking more tackles and converting more first downs. And then, inexplicably, fumbling. Credit Cincinnati's tough defense with the brutal hit that caused the fumble... but credit Denver's defense with getting the ball back.
With 100 seconds and 80 yards to go, Brock Osweiler went to work. With big plays to Owen Daniels and Bennie Fowler, the Broncos marched down the field. They set up Brandon McManus for the 45-yard game-winner playoff-clincher, and, well, we all read the opening three paragraphs.
The worst game-winning FG attempt EVER pic.twitter.com/7BPGHiCGpC— NFL Retweet (@NFLRT) December 29, 2015
The Broncos won the toss and elected not to Belichick. Brock Osweiler found Owen Daniels and Demaryius Thomas for some clutch plays that extended Denver's playoff hopes. Thomas made a sick one-handed grab for one third-down conversion, then followed that up with a tackle-bouncing run-after-the-catch that brought the Broncos to the red zone. Denver's drive fell short though, but Brandon McManus enjoyed sweet 37-yard redemption to give the Broncos a 20-17 overtime lead.
Due to revised overtime rules, the Bengals had one possession to tie it up (or score a touchdown for the win). The Denver D wasn't having it, register a key turnover when it mattered most. DeMarcus Ware's fumble recovery sealed Denver's playoff ticket, and the Broncos won 20-17.
It was easily Brock Osweiler's best start since his first start, finishing 27 of 39 for 299 yards, one touchdown, and a 100.3 passer rating. C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman combined for 108 yards on the ground, and Denver's defense held every Cincinnati receiver to under 60 yards. The Broncos entered the playoffs thanks to a total team win, if not a total 60-minute win.
With a win against the San Diego Chargers Sunday, the Broncos would clinch the AFC West and at least a playoff bye.