Knocked flat on their backs by Denver wide receiver Trindon Holliday's 105-yard kickoff return that opened the second half Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, the Bengals showed life when they scored on their first two possessions of the second half and cornerback Terence Newman came up with that ever-rare end-zone interception of Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.
But as he always does against the Bengals, Manning had the final say before a sellout crowd of 63,623 in raising his record to 8-0 against Cincinnati when he erased an early fourth-quarter 20-17 deficit and turned it into a 31-23 victory that leaves the Bengals gasping in the AFC playoff race at 3-5 with their fourth straight loss.
Newman came up with another interception on Manning's next pass just moments after his first pick set up Mike Nugent's 49-yard field goal that cut the lead to 17-13. Facing third-and-long Manning dropped back into his end zone and got hit by a blitz from defensive back Nate Clements as he tried to connect with Decker down the right sideline. Newman played the ball in the air as if he were the receiver and the Bengals ended the third quarter on the Denver 27.
It took the Bengals just 50 seconds to take the lead. Wide receiver A.J. Green, bolting back from his one-catch game two weeks ago with a 99-yard game Sunday, broke a tackle over the middle for a 19-yard catch that put the Bengals on the 2 and from there running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis pushed it in to give the Bengals a 20-17 lead with 14:10 left in the game.
But Manning was just beginning. Facing a third-and-three from his 23, he hit Decker over the middle for what should have been a three-yard gain. But Newman and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga couldn't finish off the tackle and Decker went 30 more yards.
Then, Bengals cornerback Adam Jones was called for interfering with wide receiver Demaryius Thomas in the end zone, a crushing 29-yard penalty that set up Manning's one-yard TD pass to tight end Joel Dreessen with a little more than 11 minutes left in the game.
The Bengals followed that up with a bad offensive series, fueled by a pass rush that sacked Dalton five times. Working against Broncos sack ace Elvis Dumervil, left tackle Andrew Whitworth was called for a hold and false start, and a hold on center Jeff Faine wiped out a 19-yard side-armer to Green on third-and-15.
On the next snap the rush didn't allow Dalton to step into a bomb down the right sideline and Bailey came up with Denver's first interception of Dalton at the Bengals 46. Manning, who finished with a 105.8 passer rating on 27-of-35 passing for 291 yards, hit Decker for a four-yard touchdown with 3:36 left to end it.
It was Green that brought the Bengals within 17-10 early in the third quarter when he got behind Bailey for a 10-yard touchdown. It marked the seventh straight game Green has scored a touchdown and it was the first time Bailey had been beaten for a touchdown since the 13th game of last season.
The TD had been set up by one of those unscripted plays the Bengals coaches had been calling for all month. Dalton rolled away from pressure and kept the play going until he saw tight end Jermaine Gresham downfield for a 52-yard catch-and-run.
Gresham had a huge game, finishing with 108 yards on six catches for the first 100-yard game of his career.
Dalton made one fewer turnover than Manning and had more yards (299), but he wasn't as efficient (26-for-42) and he got sacked five more times.
Faced with Manning's second-ranked offense, the Bengals defense pretty much held up its end of the deal all day, but the offense failed on five of its first six third-down tries and went into the half trailing 10-3 when Nugent missed a 46-yard-field goal wide right at the gun.
Then the special teams completed its meltdown when Holliday took the opening kickoff of the second half 105 yards for a killing score that put the Bengals two scores down to Manning, 17-3.
It was the first kick return for a TD against the Bengals since Brad Smith went 89 against them on Thanksgiving night, 2010.
Manning (15-of-20 for 160 yards in the half) wasted no time taking advantage of a three-and-out on the first Bengals series of the game when he hit his first five passes for 43 yards to give the Broncos a 3-0 lead on Matt Prater's 43-yard field goal eight minutes into the game.
Manning converted his first two third downs on short passes, the second one when Lance Ball got away from outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict for a six-yard pickup. Then he pulled out his first 20-plus-yard throw of the day and the NFL's league-leading 34th when he hit Decker running across the middle of 21 yards working on Newman. Then in a stunning upset, Manning called a run on third-and-six from the Bengals 26 and when running back Willis McGahee got stacked up for a two-yard gain by Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins and left end end Robert Geathers, the Broncos settled for the field goal.
The Bengals were all over the run game, holding McGahee to just 66 yards on 23 carrires. But Manning still made the most of his shots. He hit Thomas down the right sideline running past cornerback Leon Hall and making the 45-yard catch before safety Chris Crocker could get there.
Then on a huge third-and-two from the Bengals 13, Manning found Decker running wide open across the middle of the field when Thomas set what looked be a pick and Newman and Clements got caught up inside and couldn't recover in time as Decker ran it in to give Denver a 10-3 lead with 10:15 left in the half.
That's all Cincinnati would give Manning in the half, but the offense struggled mightily. Before the last drive of the half that began with 1:45 left, Dalton had thrown for just 76 yards and he ended up just 13-of-22 for 123 yards. He got sacked three times (twice by SAM backer Von Miller on his way to three sacks), but two were of the coverage variety.
Green caught all three of his targets for 51 yards in the half and one was on that last drive for nine yards in front of Bailey. After going to him six times for one catch two weeks ago against the Steelers, Dalton went at him nine times for seven catches and penalties took away two other targets.
The play that set up Nugent's try was a 17-yarder to Brandon Tate as Tate muscled Tony Carter out of bounds.
Tate gave the Bengals great field position on a 43-yard kick return at the Bengals 44. But Gresham dropped a pass over the middle, wide receiver Armon Binns was called for a hold, Dalton was sacked by Miller when he couldn't find anybody open, and wide receiver Mohamed Sanu lost five yards on a screen on third-and-22.
The Bengals made good on their promise to get Green the ball, although it didn't happen until the first snap of their third drive. But it was worth waiting for as Green ran past Bailey for a 37-yard bomb down the left sideline, the longest pass the 11-time Pro Bowler has given up this season.
Then three snaps later on a third-and-three from the Broncos 23, Dalton went to Green again on a screen and Green used a block by Gresham to pick up the first down. Then after two runs by running back Brian Leonard gave the Bengals a first-and-10 from the Broncos 8, the drive blew up.
Wide receiver Andrew Hawkins's sweep left got strung out to the sidelines for a two-yard loss and on second down Dalton had Green-Ellis open in the middle but nose tackle Justin Bannan batted it down. Then on third down, the Broncos were all over Dalton's safety valve in the middle, Leonard, and when Dalton pulled it down to run he got back only to the line of scrimmage, and that forced Nugent's 28-yard field goal that tied it at three in the first minute of the second quarter.
» Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis continued his bid to get the attention of Dalton and Maualuga on the leadership front when he made them game captains, along with Whitworth, defensive tackle Domata Peko, and safety Taylor Mays.
» Although Faine (hamstring) practiced all week at full go, Robinson got his first NFL start Sunday. But Faine started the second half. Robinson, a free agent out of Notre Dame, played the second half in Cincinnati's last game two weeks ago when Faine reaggravated the injury. But Faine was active Sunday.
» Not active were wide receivers Marvin Jones and Ryan Whalen, cornerback Jason Allen, safety George Iloka, linebacker Roddrick Muckelroy, defensive tackle Brandon Thompson, and tight end Richard Quinn.
» The Bengals want to attack Manning with speed, speed and more speed as he looks at the middle of the field. At least on first and second down. That's why the Bengals turned to rookie outside linebacker Emmanuel Lamur to make his NFL debut Sunday. The 6-4, 232-pound Lamur of Kansas State is a former safety that can run and he may have some company with the big Bengals safeties as they try to counter Manning's ability to call run or pass at the line. Also expected to get more snaps than usual from scrimmage is Mays, the third-year, 230-pound safety.
» Chris Crocker got his first start at safety Sunday since he rejoined the team in late September. He's starting in place of Nate Clements, which may mean Clements plays more cornerback than he has since he moved to safety. It also reflects how much the coaches regard Crocker's intelligence as the Bengals battle Manning.
» First-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick was active for the first time in his career at cornerback. The tradeoff was going with just six backers when the Bengals shelved Muckelroy.
» The Bengals have spent the last two weeks figuring out ways to get the ball to Green, their Pro Bowl receiver, but this game may come down to how they cover Denver's own big, strong and fast receiver named Demaryius Thomas.
You remember Thomas. He's so good, he made Tim Tebow look good in the playoffs last season. Thomas, the 6-3, 229-pound third-year player, has picked up where he left off and is leading the NFL leaders with 17.4 yards per catch and is second with 97 yards per game. And Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning knows where he is. Half of his league-leading 33 passes of 20-plus yards have gone to Thomas.
» If there's something vaguely familiar about the way Broncos running backs Willis McGahee and Ronnie Hillman chewed up the Saints last week for 122 and 86 yards, respectively, there is. That's the kind of power-speed combo the Bengals hoped to get from BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Bernard Scott.
But the Bengals version never got off the ground when Scott missed the preseason with a broken hand and then ended his season in his second game when he tore his ACL.
But the Broncos are purring with McGahee and Hillman despite McGahee's three fumbles. The Bengals have done a good job on McGahee during his career, holding him to 3.3 yards per his 342 carries. He got his first 100-yard game against Cincinnati in eight games last season (101 on 28 carries), but he's ripping off 4.5 per carry this season and is 10th in the league in rushing. While he takes care of the inside, Hillman flashed last week on the outside and is averaging 4.4 yards per carry on his 31 runs.
» While Dre Kirkpatrick was up, 'Dre Caldwell was not. Former Bengals receiver Andre Caldwell was inactive after playing the past four games.