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Bengals-Broncos: What we learned

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CINCINNATI — This time, the Cincinnati Bengals were ready for prime time.

Rookie running back Jeremy Hill rushed for 147 yards, and the Bengals picked off Peyton Manning four times in a 37-28 victory over the Denver Broncos on Monday night at Paul Brown Stadium.

Cincinnati (10-4-1) clinched a playoff berth for the fourth consecutive season, and the Bengals can win the AFC North by defeating the Steelers in Pittsburgh on Sunday night.

The Bengals, who rushed for 207 yards Monday, could earn the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs with a win and a Broncos loss on Sunday.

“The guys hear the message, they took it to heart, that (the playoffs) is expected,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. “We want more than that. Just need to keep climbing the mountain.”

Bengals receiver A.J. Green played sparingly Monday night after sustaining a bruised right forearm in the first quarter.

“We lost our best player and still beat a great football team,” Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “This was the start of the playoffs for us. There’s a new attitude, a new resiliency to this team.”

Manning passed for 311 yards and two touchdowns for Denver, which can still clinch the No. 2 seed in the AFC and a first-round playoff bye with a win over the Oakland Raiders at home Sunday.

“I told the guys a long time ago that it really doesn’t matter where you start, but where you finish,” Broncos coach John Fox said. “We had a setback tonight that we’ll learn from. We’ll go home and get ready for the Raiders.”

Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas finished with seven catches for 115 yards.

Denver (11-4) had the ball trailing by two late in the fourth quarter, but Manning’s pass was intercepted by cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who returned it 30 yards for a touchdown with 2:41 left.

It was Kirkpatrick’s second interception of the night.

“I shouldn’t have thrown it,” Manning said. “It’s a throw I shouldn’t have made in that situation.

“You’re not going to beat many good football teams with four interceptions. I made some bad throws.”

Cincinnati regained the lead when a 49-yard punt return by Brandon Tate set up Mike Nugent’s 23-yard field goal, making the score 30-28 with seven minutes left.

Denver overcame a 13-point halftime deficit with 21 third-quarter points, and the Broncos led 28-27 heading to the fourth quarter.

A 77-yard kickoff return by Omar Bolden set up running back C.J. Anderson’s 1-yard TD run.

The Bengals responded with an 80-yard kick return by Adam Jones leading to quarterback Andy Dalton’s 22-yard TD pass to running back Giovani Bernard, putting Cincinnati ahead 27-14.

“Those returns were huge plays that flipped field position,” Lewis said.

Manning passed for 88 yards in the first half, but he erupted for 168 yards in the third, including two touchdown passes to receiver Emmanuel Sanders, putting Denver ahead 28-27.

Dalton’s only mistake in the first half was a high throw to Green that was picked off by cornerback Aqib Talib, and the reigning AFC defensive player of the week returned it 33 yards for a touchdown putting Denver ahead 7-0.

Cincinnati tied the score 7-7 on their first play from scrimmage following Talib’s interception when Hill sprinted 85 yards for a touchdown.

“That was a huge play,” Lewis said. “We just kept answering the bell.”

The Broncos’ offense, meanwhile, wasn’t much of a factor in the first half, producing just six first downs.

Manning’s 12th interception this season came when cornerback Reggie Nelson muscled the ball away from receiver Julius Thomas at Denver’s 22-yard line. Nelson’s third pick of the season set up Dalton’s 2-yard pass to tight end Jermaine Gresham, making the score 17-7.

Nugent’s second field goal, a 49-yarder, put Cincinnati ahead 20-7 just before halftime.

“People kept saying we couldn’t win in prime time, so it was big for us to get this win,” Dalton said. “This win meant more because it got us in the playoffs.”

What the Bengals said:

“I’m very proud of our guys tonight, for our resiliency, our ability to come back after negative plays. Obviously, there are things to work on and do. But we’re still in position, still controlling our own destiny, and that’s all you can ask at this point in the year.” — Coach Marvin Lewis.

What the Broncos said:

“I think our execution got a little better in the third quarter. We had a lot of three-and-outs early in the game and didn’t get into much of a flow. Give (the Bengals) a lot of credit. They out-executed us out there. Obviously, in the fourth quarter, I made some bad throws that really put us in a bind.” — Quarterback Peyton Manning.

What we learned about the Bengals:

1. Not only did the Bengals win a game in prime time, something that was difficult for them in recent years, but they did so while overcoming an injury to star receiver A.J. Green and a 21-point third quarter by the Broncos who took the lead. Amid the bright lights of “Monday Night Football,” the Bengals didn’t wilt this time. “People kept saying we couldn’t win in prime time, so it was big for us to get this win,” quarterback Andy Dalton said. “This win meant more because it got us in the playoffs.”

2. The Bengals’ rushing attack is gaining steam. Rookie Jeremy Hill gained 147 of Cincinnati’s 207 rushing yards. The Bengals were coming off a 244-yard performance in last week’s win at Cleveland. In the playoffs, Cincinnati can use the rushing attack to control possession and help reduce the burden on QB Andy Dalton. “The offensive line has done a great job blocking,” said Hill, who topped the 1,000-yard mark for the season. “You go back and watch the film, and it’s just big holes, big creases and a lot of push.”

–LB Emmanuel Lamur was inactive due to a hamstring injury the occurred in last week’s win at Cleveland. Lamur’s absence meant rookie Marquis Flowers made his first career start. Lamur was the Bengals’ second-leading tackler and ranked second on the team with two interceptions.

–RB Jeremy Hill rushed for 147 yards Monday night to become the first Bengals rookie to rush for 1,000 yards in a season since Corey Dillon in 1997. “It’s not something I’ll think about right now, but after the season, I’ll look back on it,” said Hill.

–QB Andy Dalton’s prime-time woes resurfaced briefly Monday night when his high throw to WR A.J. Green was intercepted off the carom by Broncos CB Aqib Talib, who returned it for a touchdown. However, Dalton minimized his mistakes overall in the Bengals’ win, as he completed 17 of 26 passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns.

–WR A.J. Green said he is confident he will be able to play in the regular-season finale at Pittsburgh on Sunday, a game that will decide the AFC North title. However, Green was in obvious pain and played sparingly Monday night after sustaining a bruised forearm in the first quarter. He was targeted four times but finished the night with no catches. Green’s absence earlier this season with a toe injury was a blow for the offense.

What we learned about the Broncos:

1. Peyton Manning passed for just 88 yards in the first half and made few downfield attempts, fueling speculation that he wasn’t well physically. Manning erupted for 168 yards and two touchdowns in the third quarter, helping the Broncos outscore Cincinnati 21-7 to take the lead. In the end, Manning threw four interceptions, including two in the fourth quarter to seal the defeat. Following the game, the veteran said his leg felt fine and attributed the interceptions to poor decision-making.

2. Denver’s defensive line is vulnerable. After allowing just 71.6 yards per game to rank second in the NFL in that category through Week 15, the Broncos allowed the Bengals to run for 207 yards, including 147 from rookie Jeremy Hill, who had an 85-yard touchdown run to grab momentum in the first half. “That’s something we try to eliminate every week, big plays in the running game,” CB Chris Harris Jr. said.

–WR Demaryius Thomas had seven catches for 115 yards, and he joined Marvin Harrison (four) and Jerry Rice (three) as the only NFL players with three consecutive seasons totaling at least 1,400 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. He has 27 100-yard receiving games, including nine this season.

–QB Peyton Manning threw four interceptions for the sixth time in his career, and the first time since 2010. Manning, who labored in last week’s win over San Diego with illness and a thigh injury, insisted following Monday night’s game that he was fine physically. Despite the four picks, Manning passed for 311 yards and two touchdowns, helping the Broncos rally from a 13-point halftime deficit to a third-quarter lead.

–SS T.J. Ward left Monday night’s with a neck injury in the fourth quarter. “It’s not concussion-related,” coach John Fox said. “He was moving around fine in the locker room. We’ll evaluate him in depth when we return to Denver.”


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