Bengals cornerbacks Adam Jones (above) and Dre Kirkpatrick hounded Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (88) for three interceptions.
The Bengals 2014 season had everything but a signature win and on Monday Night in front of the prime-time gremlins it was fitting that cornerback Adam Jones supplied the flourish in the 37-28 victory over the Broncos in front of the third biggest crowd in Paul Brown Stadium history.
Jones is one of the Bengals that has never backed down from the bright lights and in front of 66,107 his mates joyously followed him and the rest down the path of four interceptions of one of the game's most iconic quarterbacks while marauding with a special teams that produced four kick and punt returns of at least 21 yards for 13 points.
"It's hard to win games like this this late in the season vs good teams. This was a playoff game," Jones said. "We have to enjoy the moment so we can know what it feels like when it comes back again. This is my atmosphere Monday night. Everybody watching in the world. Everybody against you."
After wooing the nation with an 80-yard kick return and 21-yard punt return, everyone will now know it's a fraud if Jones doesn't go to the Pro Bowl as a returner.
"I've told you guys 100 times," Jones said as the media wondered if it had just witnessed a prime-time exorcism. "These are the games when the guys that play good need to play good. Special teams to defense to offense did that."
The win put the Bengals in a familiar spot, their fourth straight postseason, but a new face did many of the honors as rookie running back Jeremy Hill staked his claim to team MVP when he became the first Bengal to have four games of at least 147 yards rushing with 147 on 22 carries.
And his 85-yard touchdown run one snap after the Broncos took a 7-0 lead on a 33-yard pick six of Andy Dalton may have very well saved the season and changed the narrative from Bad Andy Prime Time Andy to Band on the Run.
With the help of running mate Giovani Bernard and the exhaustive emphasis of offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, Hill's production on the ground has changed the chemistry of the team. Since the Bengals turned more to the run with Hill in New Orleans on Nov. 16, they've won five of the last six games and are on the brink of back-to-back AFC North titles with a win in Sunday's (8:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) season finale in Pittsburgh.
"He's a heck of a player. I said that from day one when we got him," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "He'll get better with time and Gio is really a great mix, bringing in a guy with a different edge with speed.
"We just have a new attitude. The running game has been a spark. It's kind of given us feistiness, a will to make just something happen for us," Whitworth said. "I think at times we haven't had that. For whatever reason, when you start to be able to run the football like this, you make a lot of thing happen. If we continue to run it like this, teams are going to have to try and take that away and, eventually, when you do that, it's going to be hard to cover us on the edges."
With 207 yards rushing on top of last week's 244, it's the first time since 2003 the Bengals have gone back to back for 200 on the ground.
A good running game solves a lot of problems. A four-game losing skid in prime time. An 0-8 record against Peyton Manning. An injury to Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green in the game's first five minutes that rendered his right arm useless. A Dalton pick six.
How do you beat a good team in prime time?
Run the ball and stop the run. Just like it was 1 p.m., 4:15 p.m., or 12:01 a.m.
"This proves we can overcome adversity," Hill said. "In other prime-time situations we would have folded and we would have let the game get away, kind of like Pittsburgh a few weeks ago. We did a great job answering. Every time they started to get the momentum and make some plays, somebody made a play. Special teams, defense, offense. People made plays all night."
Hill made the first big play. Down suddenly, 7-0, after a pick six that had everyone thinking about all the other prime-time implosions, Hill took the next snap for the fifth longest run in franchise history on an 85-yarder courtesy of the double pull of Whitworth and left guard Clint Boling that has racked up some yards lately.
"That play is a little unorthodox for the defense with so many different pullers," Whitworth said.
It helped that Hill ran through rookie linebacker Todd Davis' tackle in the backfield and he hit the second level at top speed following the blocks of wide receiver Mohamed Sanu and tight end Jermaine Gresham.
"Huge blocks. It was just up to me to make sure that we scored," Hill said. "They're pretty stout up front. I had a lot of (tackles for loss) and one and two-yard gains. To be honest, that's one of the better fronts I've seen this year. The easiest thing in those situations is to get pass-happy, but Hue did a good job sticking with the run."
Try 37 runs, making Dalton 29-3-1 when they run it at least 30 times, 10-0 in December.
The dynamism of this two-head backfield of Down Hill and Gio Sphere was on display when Bernard scored on a 22-yard TD pass with one of those linebacker mismatches. Hill's 85-yard jaunt came a scant
71 days after Bernard had the second longest TD run in franchise history on an 89-yarder. Only Paul Robinson's 87-yarder in '68 and Essex Johnson's 86-yarder in '71 stand between the 21st century firm of Hill and Bernard.
But there was no question the player of the game was Jones and where to start? His 80-yard kick return that set up a touchdown and answered Denver's 77-yard kick return? His ballerina 21-yard punt return that set up a field goal?
Start with his interception with 13:11 left in the game. It stopped Manning's run of three straight TD drives and began a spate of three picks that turned the Hall-of-Famer into a U-Hauler. Jones undercut the rout of wide receiver Demaryius Thomas on the sideline and returned it 14 yards to the Broncos 23. A penalty took the Bengals out of field-goal range. But the momentum had been stopped.
It was Manning's first four-pick game since 2010. It was the Bengals' first four-pick game since 2010, the home opener against Baltimore's Joe Flacco when Jones had his first Bengals interception. It was just the sixth time Manning had thrown four interceptions in 278 regular-season and post-season games.
"Yeah. Undercut it. I'm not going to give away my secrets," Jones said. "It was a good play. You smile about days like this. You're playing the best quarterback in the NFL and we come out here with four picks. And in a game we came in as underdogs and nobody believed in us except the guys in the locker room. I take my hat off to the locker room, the coaches, and the people up in the stands and the city. I's a big win for the city. Everybody talking about we can't do the night time and this and that. It shows the growth of our team."
It also showed how invaluable special teams are in a game pitting two of the best teams in the league. The Bengals have led the league in the ten major kicking categories all season and the Broncos have been near the bottom and Monday night the edge was there with a whopping 15-yard pad for Cincinnati in field position.
Jones fired the biggest salvo. Seconds after the Broncos had cut the 20-7 half-time lead to 20-14 with the help of a 77-yard kick return to open the second half, Jones padded his NFL kick return lead with an 80-yarder to allow the Bengals to score another TD less than two minutes later to jack it back to 27-14.
"Every time I get back there, my mindset is to score or make a big play. Every time I get back there I'm trying to score. It doesn't matter if they had a big play or not," Jones said. "We dialed this one up."
Jones tipped his hat to the back wedge, rookie linebacker Marquis Flowers and tight end Kevin Brock, as well as special teams captain Cedric Peerman's work on the edge.
Jones would add a 39-yarder and wide receiver Brandon Tate would pop his biggest punt return of the year, a 49-yarder right down the right sideline that set up the go-ahead field goal in the middle of the fourth quarter.
On a day they met one of the most talented teams in football, the depth of their active roster carried the day under the bright lights.
"A lot of people weren't expecting it," said right end Wallace Gilberry. "I heard before the game they moved our game Sunday (against Pittsburgh) to a late night game because they don't have much confidence in us. We take that as a slap in the fact and it's up to us to — I'm not going to say prove anybody wrong because we put the work in all week and we know what we're capable of doing — it's just a matter of going out and doing it."