DENVER - The Bengals won their first game in Denver since '75 on Sunday and every Bengal alive is going to remember how the exhausted and gritty defense held on for a 20-17 victory as they were out-snapped by 26 plays and on the field for more than 35 minutes.
Nursing that 20-17 lead with 3:10 left and the ball on the Broncos 38 after a pass interference penalty on cornerback Bradley Roby, the Bengals chose to run rookie running back Joe Mixon three straight times with multiple tight ends and they lost three yards. Their bid to play field position went by the boards when Kevin Huber's punt went in the end zone.
But a Carlos Dunlap sack on third down and a Dre Kirkpatrick passed defensed on fourth down ended it.
The Broncos came into the game with the most turnovers in the NFL and with 12:13 left in the game they obliged when Vontaze Burfict, at his rampaging best back at his old WILL linebacker position before sliding back to the middle, submarined back running C.J. Anderson to force a fumble recovered by safety Shawn Williams at the Denver 44.
Dalton then converted a third-and-six to wide receiver Alex Erickson running a slant in front of Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib and after he fumbled the ball at the end of the play it bounced back to him at the Denver 26 for a 13-yard gain. On third-and-two and after a timeout with the play clock ticking, Green beat Roby down the left sideline and he had to reach back only slightly to make the 18-yard touchdown catch that gave the Bengals a 20-10 lead with 8:56 left.
Green had been saddled with just three catches for 31 yards before that snap, which gave the Bengals their 11th touchdown in their 12 red-zone trips on the road this season. It was also Dalton's third third-down touchdown pass of the day en route to a 117.3 passer rating on just 154 economical yards Burfict limped off the field on the next series and Denver's overwhelming command in time of possession and snaps began to take its toll. Beleaguered Broncos quarterback Brock Osweiler converted a third-and-five and third-and-10, the last one a 14-yarder to wide receiver Demaryius Thomas over the middle. The Bengals held Thomas to one catch before that drive, when he caught four and that included a 17-yard touchdown pass that Osweiler dropped over cornerback Kirkpatrick's tight coverage in the left corner that cut the Bengals' lead to 20-17 with 5:05 left.
Osweiler did everything but score. He converted 12 of 21 third downs, threw for 254 yards, and led Denver to 341 yards. But he couldn't beat Dalton's three TDs even though the Bengals managed just 190 yards.
After closing the first half with 15 yards on their final 10 plays, the Bengals' offensive futility continued into the middle of the second half when Denver punter Dixon Riley pinned them on the Bengals 1 and at that point they had just 104 yards offense with 17 yards on 10 rushes.
Mixon actually got a first down on two straight runs, but on the last one left guard Clint Boling was called for a hold. Then on second-and-seven Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller got just enough of the edge on right tackle Andre Smith to deflect Dalton's pass. On third-and seven Dalton led Green too far over the middle for an incompletion and it was there when Green beat cornerback Chris Harris Jr. Just as Dalton released it he got blown up by defensive end Derek Wolfe.
At that point Green had just one catch for 13 yards. He did make a catch on the next series and a Brandon LaFell slant converted a third down, but on the next third down Dalton took a coverage sack.
Denver cashed that series for great field position at the Bengals 44, but the Bengals defense had a nice stand ended by Dunlap nearly duplicating last month's game-winning TD tip-pick when his third-down play forced Brandon McManus' 45-yard field-goal that cut the lead to 13-10 with 4:54 left in the third quarter.
On a pace to have the ball less than 20 minutes for a third straight game, the Bengals used their nine minutes of possession to take a 13-7 half-time lead.
The, Bengals, next-to-last to you know who in the NFL in converting third down, got one on a 29-yard floater from Dalton to Erickson beating Roby for his first NFL touchdown pass early in the second quarter to give the Bengals that 13-7 lead with 12:55 left in the half.
On that drive the Bengals converted two third-and-fours, the first one keeping the drive alive when slot receiver Tyler Boyd got five yards on a wide receiver screen out of a bunch formation. Mixon did enough early damage with 17 yards on his first six carries that Dalton got 29 yards out of a play-action fake to LaFell running down the seam.
Dalton's two TD passes got him a 118.3 passer rating on just eight of 13 passing for 79 yards in the half. But Osweiler continued his struggles with a half he completed just nine of 19 passes for 97 yards and had that crushing red-zone interception as part of his 40.99 rating.
In the raified air the Bengals defense got gassed in the first quarter when they were on the field for 10:55 with the main culprit a 14-play drive in which the Broncos smashed it on the ground six of the last seven plays in converting a fourth down, third down, and finally a touchdown when running back C.J. Anderson went straight up the middle to give Denver a 7-6 lead with 41 seconds left in the first quarter.
Denver racked up 66 yards on its first 14 carries, but the killing play was a 21-yard pass on third-and-five to wide receiver Cody Latimer working in what appeared to be a zone against cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and Josh Shaw. Denver finished with 112 yards, but on 34 carries that computed to 3.3 yards per carry.
Kirkpatrick did what nobody ever did in the NFL before when he returned an interception 101 yards and didn't score a touchdown in the opening moments but the Bengals still jumped to a 6-0 lead.
On third-and-three from the Bengals 4, Osweiler tried to throw a quick slant to Latimer when the pick play didn't work because Kirkpatrick was lurking behind one yard deep in the end zone. He took off all by himself but labored down the stretch as he got to the 10 and when he turned around to see who was gaining on him he bobbled the ball, lost it, and then fall on it at the 1.
Mixon, just 26 yards on eight carries in the half, got stoned on two carries but Dalton pulled off a play-action fake on third-and-goal and found tight end Tyler Kroft all alone in the right corner when Kroft came out of his three-point stance. But Randy Bullock missed his second extra point in as many games and the Bengals lead was only 6-0 with 7:08 left in the first quarter.
The Bengals came in trying to take advantage of the Broncos' poor special teams in last week's loss to the Patriots, when they muffed a punt, had a punt blocked, and gave a 103-yard kick return.
But it was the Bengals that got victimized on Kevin Huber's first punt after the offense opened with a three-and-out. Linebacker Shaquil Barrett came up the middle untouched to take it off Huber's foot for the Bengals' first blocked punt in two years. The Broncos recovered at the Bengals 29, but Kirkpatrick saved the day.
With the words of Denver football boss John Elway ("We're soft,") ringing in their ears, the Broncos pounded the ball on the ground for 81 yards and established the crushing time of possession that has haunted the Bengals for the last month. When Bengals running back Giovani Bernard lost five yards on a sweep on third-and-nine in the last minute of the half, that meant the Bengals' last 10 plays of the half accounted for 15 yards. Green didn't get his only catch until 1:04 left on a 13-yarder to the sideline working on Talib.
Denver used its running game and the Bengals' offensive ineptitude to pile up nearly a 2-to-1 margin in plays, 42-23, in the half But the Broncos couldn't protect Osweiler and gave up sacks to Dunlap and the blitzing Burfict. Burfict, moved back to WILL backer after three straight starts at middle linebacker, looked more comfortable but he got a little help on that one as rookie left end Carl Lawson caved the pocket.
Vincent Rey moved to the middle in place of Burfict but he suffered a hamstring injury in the second quarter and was lost for the day to give rookie Jordan Evans plenty of work at WILL when Burfict moved back to the middle after the injury.
In that final minute of the first half Lawson did go offsides twice for the fourth and fifth times this season and that gave McManus a shot at a 61-yard field goal with five seconds left. He made it, but head coach Marvin Lewis had called a timeout before he got it off and made him do it again. This time cornerback KeiVarae Russell came off the edge to block it, end the half, and prevent a Bengals' opponent from scoring in the final 23 seconds of the first half for the fifth straight week.
Cincinnati Bengals take on the Denver Broncos in week 11 of the regular season.