Joe Burrow did what Carson Palmer couldn't do and Andy Dalton didn't get the chance to do.
Tyler Boyd finished what Chad Johnson and A.J. Green started. While the defense of Trey Hendrickson and Larry Ogunjobi went a yard longer than the crew of Geno Atkins and Vontaze Burfict went at Mile High, Evan McPherson and Kevin Huber kicked the special teams ghosts rattling around the Denver of Christmases past.
Yes Virginia, the Bengals finally beat the Broncos on the road in December Sunday in a game they both absolutely had to have.
They did it when Burrow's hurry-up-at-the-line 56-yard touchdown pass to Boyd as the third quarter died and McPherson's 58-yard franchise-record field goal on the last play of the first half held up in a 15-10 victory. The win was fashioned by a defense worthy of a team that now sits in first place in the AFC North with three games to play.
"I continue to say this week-in and week-out," said Boyd, looking summery and cool in sun glasses after his 96 yards cut the ice. "'We can correlate everything—when we play right like we did this week, I think that the sky's the limit.' I don't think that we can be beat."
This was Boyd's kind of game all the way, his biggest game in three months. Gutty and gritty with an edge.
"Now that we've got this win, it's down the street," Boyd said. "Hopefully, we can get off this game and get back and prepare for Baltimore. That's another huge game. A division opponent and they just lost. So, they're going to come into our place ready to play. I think all of the guys are going to buy in and come in ready to go to war. It's going to be a great fight, but I think we're going to pull it off."
Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said it wasn't sexy and it was Just Plain Joe instead of Joey Franchise and it was a game all the defensive tackles got game balls and the play of the day was made by a backup defensive end.
But that's what you need in December on the doorstep. Hard and tough and a shot-and-beer for an 8-6 team that holds the tiebreaker in the division over a Ravens team that comes to Paul Brown Stadium Sunday in a 1 p.m. game that is the biggest NFL game in Cincinnati since the 2015 Wild Card Game left with the Steelers.
"It's like that sometimes," said Burrow after his savvy and resourceful 103 passer rating and 157 yards added to the legend. "Not every game is going to be throwing for three touchdown passes and 300 yards and all that. They're a really, really good defense that has invested a lot in a secondary and linebackers. They're very well coached and you've got to give them credit. But, you know, I was proud of our guys that we made the plays when they counted. Critical third downs, down the stretch. Exciting win."
Exciting win? Ho hum. And the Rocky Mountains looked kind of nice on a gift of a 61-degree day a few days before Christmas as Burrow checked down and improvised rushing to what amounted to four first downs on five scrambles for 25 yards.
It was a sight better than the swirling snow of Christmas Eve in 2006 when the Bengals lost a playoff spot in the final minute when a tying extra point snap went awry.
Or the 16-degree mini freezer bowl Monday night a few days after Christmas in 2015 when backup quarterback AJ McCarron, playing for the injured Dalton, couldn't secure a playoff bye. The Broncos had to go overtime to get it themselves on the way to winning the Super Bowl when the Bengals' Mike Nugent kicked a tying 52-yarder. But they couldn't overcome his 45-yard miss that would have put them up 17-0 and a couple of shattering mistakes on offense and defense that neither made Sunday in crunch time.
On Sunday, they flipped the temperature and the script.
"No panic, great poise," Taylor said. "You've probably been able to tell from my tone this week, I have a ton of respect for the Denver Broncos, a ton of respect for their coaching staff and players. They play the right way, they coach the right way. 15 to 10 sounds about right when you play them and one of the things particularly that their defense does is make you panic. They make you panic and force plays and turn the ball over and then their offense capitalizes. I was really proud of our offense, just taking what they are giving us and not overreacting."
But as much as it was Taylor's call on the 56-yard touchdown pass and McPherson's leg on the 58-yarder, it was the defense that put them in first place Monday morning. It was summed up by Hendrickson's wide smile as he greeted Taylor coming into the locker room.
"How many times did they hold me? They called it twice," Hendrickson said.
They both knew it could have been a lot more than that. But they got Broncos left tackle Garrett Bolles twice in the final four minutes that quashed drives, especially the last one with a minute left. Hendrickson got a half-sack earlier, sharing it with the rampaging Ogunjobi. And while they can debate if a half-sack extends his sack streak to 10 games for the second best of all time, there's no doubt he's got 13 sacks on the year in one of the greatest Bengals seasons of all-time.
"He puts so much pressure on the quarterback on every single snap and he makes the plays that are there," Taylor said. "A couple times a game, Trey is going to be there to make that play."
But Hendrickson is always the first to tell you defense is a team deal and so Taylor gave a game ball to all the defensive tackles because, really, that's what December is in the NFL. The Broncos live on the running game and defense and on Sunday the Bengals didn't let the running back tandem of Melvin Gordon III and Javante Williams take hold. They split 133 yards, but it took them 34 carries.
What a brochure for free agency. Back in March, Hendrickson became the richest free agent in Bengals history and a day later Ogunjobi became the biggest steal when they secured the Cleveland tackle they could never block. On Sunday he had another 1.5 sacks to give him a Geno-like seven on the year from the inside.
This was Ogunjobi's kind of game, too. When it shifted after quarterback Teddy Bridgewater went down and the Broncos got their only touchdown a few plays after Bridgewater got carried off in an emotional moment in the third quarter, Ogunjobi had something to say.
"You talk to the guys after that play where Teddy got hurt. We understand [that] it's a momentum shift," Ogunjobi said. "The other team is going to play with a lot of emotion. Their starting quarterback got hurt, and [they're] trying to find a way to get back on track so, I told the guys, 'Hey, we've got to find a way to match the intensity because it's going to be one of those types of games.' It was good to get the win."
One of these games meant it was decided on a mistake. And the Bengals defense that forced the game's only turnover of the day when defensive end Khalid Kareem, on his 13th and last snap of the day, wrested the ball out of the arms of Denver quarterback Drew Lock. Lock was in because Bridgewater went to the hospital with a head injury and after the biggest play of his NFL career, Kareem went to concussion protocol.
It was a day for the backups. Fred Johnson, the third tackle, came off the bench to start and the offensive line held up when it had to. Linebacker Joe Bachie got his third start and had six more tackles before he left with a knee injury making the play on Bridgewater. Eli Apple, finding a home on his fourth NFL corner after injuries gave him a shot, denied what turned out to be a huge touchdown with one of his two passes defensed coming in the end zone.
"That speaks for our whole team," Taylor said. "You've got Joe Bachie stepping in there and doing a great job. You see Michael Thomas going in at safety, Ricardo Allen's been playing safety. Khalid Kareem got up and made some plays today. We used a bunch of linemen.
"We feel really good about the depth of this team, even our practice squad. They are all ready to play and this coaching staff has done a great job of keeping those guys ready. When their numbers called, there's no falloff. There's no "we need to protect this guy," there's been none of that. Our guys all step up."
The guy holding for McPherson's record kick, punter Kevin Huber, had a day himself with seven punts going for a 50-yard net average. He drilled three inside the 20 and got off a 61-yarder in the best game of his 13th season.
It helped make possible the winning play. Burrow and Boyd.
Taylor's play call (a play action bootleg to the left that Burrow took back the other way into the pocket) was so good that Boyd was wide open when Burrow threw back. It looked like Boyd, the primary target all the way, released late against the grain. Boyd's juke was so good at the 30 that safety Justin Simmons looked far from a Pro Bowler. Tight end C.J. Uzomah's rolling block on a perimeter blitz was so good there was a body strewn just as Burrow let it go.
Taylor urged them to get to the line quickly.
"That's a play we repped in practice all week, and really credit to him." Burrow said of Taylor. "He saw what they were doing to us when we got on the ball and kind of hurried up. So we got to that play and that's credit to Zac. Great call.
"When we got on the ball, we realized that they were playing a little more one-high (safety) then they had been," Burrow said. "So figured that would be a good call."
Good enough the Bengals carried a December day in Denver.
"It wasn't sexy, but man," Taylor said, "it's what we needed."