DENVER, Colo. - The 11-4 Bengals' bid to secure a first-round bye took a major hit Monday night in a Mile High classic when they couldn't capitalize on a dominant first half and lost, 20-17, in overtime when the 11-4 Broncos overcame a 14-0 deficit.
The Bengals now need to beat the Ravens in next week's finale at Paul Brown Stadium and get a Denver loss at home to San Diego to get the bye.
The game ended when Bengals quarterback AJ McCarron let a shot-gun snap slither through his hands and the Broncos recovered the fumble at the Cincinnati 23, spoiling a game effort by the Bengals backup. It was their only turnover of the game.
The Bengals defense couldn't get off the field to open overtime on the third play, which was third-and-10. Broncos quarterback Brock Osweiler stepped up in the pocket and found tight end Owen Daniels for a first down, his third huge catch starting in the last two minutes of regulation.
Denver got 15 more yards when WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict was called for hitting tight end Virgil Green out of bounds. Then on third-and seven and Denver trying to get into field-goal range, wide receiver Demaryious Thomas made a great one-handed catch over the middle for a first down despite blanket coverage by cornerback Adam Jones.
That set up Brandon McManus' 37-yard field goal five minutes into the overtime and that stood up for the winner.
In a wild finish to regulation, the Bengals gave up a microwave drive to Osweiler that began on his 20 with 1:40 left. The Bengals pretty much kept with their four-man rush, but Osweiler had time to hurt them over the middle, the big one a 26-yarder to Daniels. But on the last play of regulation, McManus badly shanked a 45-yard field goal to the left. Not even close.
Osweiler turned the tables on the Bengals after throwing just eight passes in the first half for 89 yards. He went up top in the second half 31 times and finished with a 100.9 passer rating on 27 of 39 for 299 yards.
As the game went to overtime, the night was down to 12 degrees and Alabama's AJ McCarron held up to the rush and thermostat. He was 22 of 35 for 200 yards passing for an 87.8 passer rating and didn't turn it over until his last play.
With Denver driving for the winning score in a 17-17 game with 4:05 left, the Bengals defense forced the first turnover of the game when right end Michael Johnson forced running back C.J. Anderson to fumble at the Bengals 26, where it was recovered by safety Reggie Nelson.
McCarron, coming up huge, converted a third-and-four when he rolled out and hit running back Rex Burkhead working on Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talil and the Bengals had a first down at their 40 on the eight-yard gain. But McCarron held on the ball too,long take a huge sack for the Bengals that forced a punt and Kevin Huber failed to pin them deep with his second touchback of the night.
Staring at a third-and-16 and down 17-14, McCarron was trying to avoid a fourth three-and-out from his own 14 when he took a hellacious hit from outside linebacker Von Miller but he got off a 20-yard completion to wide receiver Mohamed Sanu and it jump-started a drive for the tying field goal with 6:46 left in the game.
McCarron threw another seed to Sanu on the sideline for another first down and he beat the blitz to get another chunk from tight end Tyler Kroft. McCarron nearly hit a long bomb touchdown in the end zone to wide receiver A.J. Green on his first target of the half on third-and-five from the Denver 34. But Green momentarily stopped his route and when he got open McCarron led him slightly too far to the middle of the end zone.
Mike Nugent then hit his longest field goal of the season, a 52-yarder to tie it at 17 with 6:46 left.
After the Bengals dominated the game's first 27:29, Nugent's bid to give the Bengals a 17-0 lead from 45 yards sailed right and ignited Denver's run that gave the Broncos a 17-14 lead with about 11 minutes left in the game.
Down 14-3, Osweiler got the opening kickoff of the second half and passed it 10 of the 11 plays on the TD drive. He hit eight of the passes for 73 yards as Osweiler just got rid of it quickly. The Bengals had a chance to hold Denver to a field goal on third-and-three from the 8. They blitzed, but Osweiler found wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders wide open around the 5 on the left side and he ran it in for the touchdown to make it 14-10 just 4:46 into the second half. Rookie cornerback Josh Shaw was in on that play for Leon Hall, getting checked for a concussion. Hall was later cleared.
That TD got the crowd into it and the game then settled into the defensive struggle everyone expected. The Bengals, who converted their first seven third downs, missed on their next four and that's how the third quarter ended. The last play of the quarter had the Bengals looking at a third-and-two from near midfield, but a sweep to the right to running back Giovani Bernard got blown up to force a third straight series ended by a Huber punt and the Bengals leading, 14-10. After rolling up 204 yards in the first half, they had just 30 in the third quarter.
But after giving up that touchdown drive to open the half, the Bengals defense adjusted and rung up three straight three-and-outs. The first one came courtesy of the rampaging Carlos Dunlap's third sack of the game and the third resulted from Osweiler overthrowing wide open wide receiver Demaryius Thomas down the left sideline.
But the defense broke down on a run play early in the fourth quarter. After holding the Broncos to 33 rushing yards on 11 carries, they gave up a 39-yard touchdown run to running back C.J. Anderson that gave Denver a 17-14 lead with 11:17 left. Defensive tackle Wallace Gilberry missed him at the line of scrimmage and he ran through Adam Jones and Reggie Nelson for the longest run against the Bengals since Nov.1
Stalking their first play-off bye under head coach Marvin Lewis and facing the NFL's No. 1 defense, the Bengals reeled off 170 yards on their first two series to take that 14-3 half-time lead. After controlling the ball for 21 minutes, the Bengals had a chance to take a 17-0 lead with 2:31 left in the first half, but kicking from the left hash Nugent pushed a 45-yard field goal to the right.
The miss cost them some momentum. Denver finally got good field position and they used it to burn the Bengals on a rare long play. Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders got behind Nelson and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick for a wide-open 35-yard pass, the longest against the Bengals since Nov. 22 in Arizona.000
A 14-yard screen pass to running back Ronnie Hillman gave the Broncos a first down on the Cincinnati 7, but left end Carlos Dunlap, working one-on-one against Broncos right tackle Michael Schofield, came up with his second sack of the game when he dumped Osweiler on second down.
That forced Brandon McManus' chip-shot field goal to cut it to 14-3 at the half.
In his second NFL start, McCarron hit nine of his first 12 passes for 84 yards as the Bengals were 3-for-3 on third down on each of the first two series. In a stunning balance bordering on 50-50 between run and pass, running back Jeremy Hill pounded it 11 times for 47 yards and Green had a sliding first-down catch from a scrambling McCarron to go with a touchdown in those first two series. McCarron finished the half 12 of 17 for 119 yards and a 109.7 passer rating, while Green had five catches for 57 yards and Hill 46 yards on 13 carries. Green got blanked in the second half and Hill finished with 23 more yards on six more carries.
The Bengals offense dominated the game's first series with a 15-play, 80-yard touchdown drive, McCarron's longest as a pro. Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson put together a beauty against a Denver defense No. 1 against the pass and run. So he mixed it perfectly with eight passes for 47 yards and seven runs for 33 yards in a drive that consumed the game's first 7:34 and culminated on McCarron's five-yard touchdown pass to Green.
Playing amid temperatures in the teens, by far the Alabama kid's coldest game ever, McCarron, wearing a glove on his left hand, warmed up quickly with five of eight passing for 47 yards and thawed the three third downs in the drive.
Against the blitz McCarron got rid of it on third-and-four and Bernard made cornerback Bradley Roby and safety Darian Stewart miss for the first first down of the drive. On the next third down, another third-and-four, McCarron, untouched in the pocket, dropped a back-shoulder throw to wide receiver Marvin Jones working against one of Denver's two Pro Bowl cornerbacks, Chris Harris , on the sideline for 10 yards.
Then McCarron worked the option pitch to Hill and caught outside backer DeMarcus Ware in no-man's land for a 14-yard gain. Then on the last third down, from the 5, McCarron ran the fade to Green and the Pro Bowler working on the other Pro Bowl cornerback, Talib, executed logic-defying footwork in the right back corner of the end zone to give the Bengals a 7-0 lead with 7:34 left in the first quarter.
It was a costly series. Already down tight end Tyler Eifert, they lost their most experienced tight end for the game when Bengals tight end and Denver native Ryan Hewitt injured his knee. They also used a timeout and would use their last one of the half with 10:56 left.
The Bengals defense also responded on their first series, despite picking up a hands-to-the-face penalty on Burfict and a holding call on Adam Jones. Dunlap came up with another second-down sack and on the ensuing third-and-long Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins blew up a screen pass.
Then McCarron took off on a 90-yard drive that chewed up 13 more plays and 7:50 by converting three more third downs and he converted the last one, a third-and-five, on a six-yard scramble. He converted a third-and-three with a great, zippy 15-yard throw to Marvin Jones on the sideline that Roby couldn't get to quickly enough. and his first third-down conversion was again to Bernard frying man-to-man coverage for an eight-yard catch out of the backfield on third-and-four.
They then ran Sanu two straight times as the Wildcat Quarterback from the 10 and Sanu scored untouched on a six-yard sweep to the left. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth pulled and tight end Tyler Kroft and running back Rex Burkhead executed blocks to seal it.
PRE-GAME NOTES: As if you needed any more evidence that Monday night's AFC Showdown between the Bengals and Broncos was destined to be a smash-mouth affair, the Bengals activated run-stopping tackles Brandon Thompson and Pat Sims together for the first time all season.
The Bengals appeared to anticipate that the Broncos would try to protect quarterback Brock Osweiler in his sixth NFL start with the running game, ranked 18th after back-to-back losses they've averaged three yards per carry. Another reason is that Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins has the sickle cell trait and they want to make sure they don't give him too many snaps in the lighter air.
As expected, safety George Iloka (groin) joined quarterback Andy Dalton (thumb) and tight end Tyler Eifert (concussion) on the inactive list because they're hurt. With an extra tackle, the Bengals opted to de-activate defensive end Will Clarke.
They also went light at offensive line, dressing both rookie backup tackles Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher and de-activating veteran backup Eric Winston. As he has been all year, rookie defensive end Marcus Hardiston was inactive, as well as rookie wide receiver Mario Alford.
The Bengals held pre-game warmups for Monday night's AFC showdown with the Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in 16-degree temperatures and it looked like that's where it was going to stay.
The field looked to be in excellent shape since it was just re-seeded a few weeks ago. The Bengals weren't allowed to work on the field Sunday because a tarp was on the field in the wake of a snow advisory, forcing the Bengals to a high school field.
Cincinnati Bengals travel to Denver to take on the Broncos in week 16 of the regular season