In a driving rain the Bengals' relentless special teams and their resilient defense carried their limping offense into the postseason when they teamed to give the Bengals a 37-28 victory over Denver Monday night before a delirious crowd of 66,107 at dancing and drenched Paul Brown Stadium.
The third largest crowd in PBS history saw the 10-4-1 Bengals secure their fourth straight playoff berth when cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was draped all over a pivot route by wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and Hall-of-Fame quarterback Petyon Manning threw his third interception of the night and Kirkpatrick returned it 30 yards for a pick six with 2:41 left that gave the Bengals a 37-28 lead.
And then Kirkpatrick, relieving the ill Terence Newman, came up with another with 1:07 left when he broke on a ball skidding to the sideline at the Bengals 5 to seal it and send the Bengals to Pittsburgh next week looking for the AFC North title.
After the Bengals forced a three-and-out in the middle of the fourth quarter, wide receiver Brandon Tate returned a punt 49 yards down the right sideline to put the ball on the Broncos 12. With wide receiver A.J. Green limping, the Bengals tried what amounted to three runs, didn't get much, and Mike Nugent hit the go-ahead field goal from 23 yards with 7:49 left to make it 30-28.
Safety Taylor Mays then sacked Manning on third-and-18 and the Bengals got it back. But they could muster nothing on offense despite getting a roughing the passer call and they faced a worst-case scenario. Punting the ball back to Manning with 4:04 away from a playoff berth and one of the greatest quarterback's of all-time needing just a field goal as he got the ball back at his own 20.
But the defense and teams answered the call as Manning suffered his first four-pick as a Bronco and first since 2010.
On the verge of taking a two-score lead over the Broncos in the middle of the third quarter, Bengals rookie running back Jeremy Hill fumbled inside the Denver 10 and Manning took only a few minutes to turn it into a go-ahead touchdown at 28-27 with 1:49 left in the third quarter with a building-sapping drive.
Still, Hill had quite a night and became the first Bengal to have four games of at least 147 yards rushing when he finished with 147 on 22 carries, putting him at 1,024 yards for the season in becoming the club's first 1,000-yard rookie rusher since Corey Dillon in 1997.
The Bengals shot to a 20-7 half-time leading holding Manning to zero points and 88 yards, but he came out blistering in the third quarter hitting 12 of his first 16 passes and scoring on all three third-quarter drives. He finished with the four picks for a 61.8 passer rating on 28 of 44 passing for 311 yards and two TDs.
After Denver outside linebacker Von Miller simply ripped the ball out of Hill's arms, Manning went looking for his top wide receiver, Demaryius Thomas. Following a 10-yard bullet to Thomas on the sideline, Thomas took Newman deep over the middle for a 46-yard completion. Then on third-and-15, the Bengals tried a zone blitz dropping left end Carlos Dunlap into coverage on Thomas and Thomas beat him for 15 yards. Manning then hit wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders for an easy touchdown running a post past Kirkpatrick to make it 28-27. With Newman heavily under the weather all day and taking IVs, he finally had to come out and Kirkpatrick came in cold.
He soon warmed up.
Early in the fourth quarter, cornerback Adam Jones, easily the Bengals' player of the game, picked off Manning at the Broncos 24 when he undercut a route. It would have been a 41-yard field goal Nugent, but safety Reggie Nelson was called for taunting, a 15-yard penalty that took them out of field-goal range and all the Bengals offense could do was lose two yards and punt.
They were in a tough spot with Green nursing an injured upper right arm incurred on the first snap of the second series and he had no catches as the game lurched into the middle of the fourth quarter. At that point he was taken out of the game because he couldn't lift it, although he said he thinks he can play next week.
The Bengals' usually steel-belted special teams melted on the opening kickoff of the second half and gave up their longest return of the season on Omar Bolden's 77-yard run and the Broncos cut the lead to 20-14 just three plays later with barely two minutes gone.
But Jones, after setting up a score in the first half with a 21-yard punt return, outdid Bolden when he whisked the ensuing kickoff 80 yards to set up Dalton's 22-yard touchdown pass to running back Giovani Bernard that pushed the lead back to 27-14 with just 2:25 gone in the half. At that point Dalton had only one completion to a wide receiver as he went dinking and dunking. This time his eyes lit up when he saw Bernard working across the middle against linebacker Steven Johnson and it was no contest on the perimeter.
Dalton finished 17 of 26 for 146 yards, two TDs, and a pick six for an 89.6 passer rating. Only three of those completions were to a wide receiver.
But Manning was heating up after the Bengals stoned him in the first half. On the next drive, looking at third-and-two, Manning sent Sanders long down the right sideline and the Bengals gave up one of their rare long completions even though Newman was called for pass interference on the play. Sanders still made a tumbling one-handed catch for a 32-yard play. That set up Sanders' touchdown off a wide receiver screen for four yards out to again cut it to 27-21 in the middle of the third quarter.
The Bengals bounced back from early adversity to take a 20-7 half-time lead when Nelson set up a touchdown by ripping away an interception from tight end Julius Thomas and served as the centerpiece of a first half that began with four Denver punts on the Broncos' first four possessions.
When Nugent drilled a 49-yard field goal with 1:03 left in the half, the Broncos had just 35 yards rushing and when Denver kicker Connor Barth hooked a 49-yard field goal try left at the half-time gun, the Bengals defense hadn't allowed a point in the last six quarters.
The Bengals got good pressure on Manning in holding him to 88 yards passing in the half on nine of 15 passing for a 48.8 passer rating and they were also ganging up on running back C.J. Anderson in holding him to 37 yards on 11 carries in the half. Denver had just 125 yards on 26 snaps in the first half and the Bengals cooled off Anderson on 18 carries for 83 yards.
The Broncos' only score came on cornerback Aqib Talib's 33-yard pick six of Dalton on the first play of the second series for a 7-0 lead. But the Bengals rebounded with Hill's 85-yard touchdown run on the next snap as he finished the half with 107 yards for his fourth 100-yard game of the season.
The Bengals stuck with their game plan of keeping Manning off the field with their running game. Running back Giovani Bernard added 32 yards on six carries as the Bengals ran it 20 times in the half for 166 yards.
Nelson victimized Thomas on the right sideline at the Denver 22 and when Dalton swashbuckled for nine yards off the zone read and then scrambled for eight more when he put the ball down and ran up the middle, they had a first down at the Broncos 2. That's when Dalton executed a play-action fake and took off on a bootleg to the right and he found tight end Jermaine Gresham all alone in the back corner of the end zone to make 17-7 with 7:56 left in the half.
It happened again. But this time the Bengals had an answer.
Stalked by prime-time implosions, the Bengals suffered another early when Dalton overthrew a wide-open slant that Green couldn't reach and tipped it behind him, where it was corralled by the diving Talib. As Green lay withering in pain, Talib bounced up for a 33-yard touchdown return that gave Denver a 7-0 lead with 10:27 left in the first quarter.
Green missed the next snap as the trainers examined his right arm, which was drilled by safety T.J. Ward after the ball bounced off his left hand. But barely had the announcement come that Green's return was probable when Hill broke the 85-yard touchdown run against Denver's No. 2-best run defense to tie the game at 7 with 10:09 left in the first quarter.
The longest run the Broncos had allowed before that was a 29-yarder but Hill broke this one running a stretch play left and started when he made linebacker Todd Davis miss him in the backfield. He then followed down-field blocks by wide receiver Mohamed Sanu and Gresham to tie it for the longest run of Hill's career.
While Green was getting his upper right arm bandaged, the Bengals defense was bloodying Manning and forced back-to-back punts. The Bengals got the second punt when, on second-and-three, WILL linebacker Vincent Rey penetrated to dump Anderson for a five-yard loss and on third down Nelson sniffed out a wide receiver screen for no gain.
That set up Adam Jones' whirling dervish 21-yard punt return to put his team in great shape at the Denver 45. Dalton, nine-for-10 converting third-and-ones this season, was stopped inches away. But Hill converted the fourth down despite getting bounced back in the backfield when he recovered long enough to drag defensive end DeMarcus Ware with him for the first down.
He then followed Gresham's block on Miller for seven more. On third-and-six from the Broncos 19, Miller forced Dalton out of pocket and he threw it away to bring on Nugent for a 37-yard field goal that gave the Bengals a 10-7 lead with 10:23 left in the first half.
Green left one more time to get his arm examined, but he checked back into the game. Dalton had him open over the middle on third down on the half's last snap, a third-and-nine, but he overthrew him and that brought on Nugent for the 49-yarder. Dalton was a bit wild in the half, finishing nine of 14 for 58 yards for a 67 passer rating. Green had no catches in the half on three targets.
It was Bernard who carried the water in that drive, bolting up the middle for a 23-yarder and then getting them into field goal range when he followed left guard Clint Boling on an 18-yard screen.
PREGAME NOTES: SAM linebacker Emmanuel Lamur's hamstring injury didn't bounce back in time for him to be ready for Monday night's game at Paul Brown Stadium as sixth-rounder Marquis Flowers earned his first NFL start in his place against the Broncos.
As expected, Eric Winston, with the Bengals all of three weeks, got his first Cincinnati start at right tackle and 120th of his career. That put Clint Boling back at left guard. With defensive end Margus Hunt healthy enough for his first game since Nov. 16, the Bengals sat defensive tackle Devon Still for the first time in five games.
With wide receiver James Wright (knee) inactive for the third straight game and Greg Little inactive through a coach's decision, Dane Sanzenbacher got the nod at receiver for the first time in a couple of weeks. Also inactive were quarterback A.J. McCarron, cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris, and offensive lineman Tanner Hawkinson.
Even though Flowers gets the start, look for Lamur's snaps to be shared with safety Taylor Mays involved in the mix.