Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick salutes his game-sealing pick six Monday as he heads to Pittsburgh with three interceptions in the last two games.
The Bengals personnel department held its first extensive meetings this week as it began to rank college seniors. Then they took a break Monday night and watched the club's three latest draft boards have a major say in the 37-28 win over the Broncos that put them in the playoffs for a fourth straight season:
-Dre Kirkpatrick, the 2012 first-round cornerback who has patiently waited three years for a spot in the Bengals deep secondary, can now tell his grandkids he intercepted Hall-of-Fame quarterback Peyton Manning twice in a span of 1:34, the last for a 30-yard pick with 2:41 left that sealed the victory.
-Running back Jeremy Hill, May's second-round pick, became the third rookie in NFL history with four 140-yard rushing games in a season as he joined Eric Dickerson from the 1983 Rams and Curtis Martin from the 1995 Patriots with a 147-yard effort on 22 carries.
-Hill's tag-team partner, Giovani Bernard, looked like the first running back taken in the 2013 draft Monday when he easily beat linebacker Steven Johnson across the middle and up for a 22-yarder for his first TD catch of the season
-Right guard Kevin Zeitler, who some club observers are saying is playing at a Pro Bowl level, is that other first-round pick from 2012 taken 10 slots behind Kirkpatrick at No. 27. He helped spearhead a 207-yard rushing game Monday night, the first back-to-back 200-yarder in 11 years.
"I'm proud of Dre. I couldn't be happier for him," said veteran cornerback Adam Jones. "We had a couple of press plays that we didn't want to press parted up different ways and on that last pick, he did exactly what Coach told him. He got out of the break and made a heck of a play for us. I think Dre has caught up with the speed of the game. I'm very pleased with him. Words can't express it."
Kirkpatrick broke the game open with 2:41 left and the Bengals clinging to a 30-28 lead. It was third-and-one from the Denver 29 and didn't the nation figure they were going go see Manning's 42nd fourth-quarter victory? Instead they saw the Bengals' first pick six of the season, the first one since Kirkpatrick ended last season here with a pick six against Baltimore's Joe Flacco.
Kirkpatrick was all over a pivot route to wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. Thomas had a 115-yard night, but three of Manning's four picks were thrown his way and Kirkpatrick had this one all the way.
"Coach told me to play what I see," Kirkpatrick said of cornerbacks coach Vance Joseph. "I knew I had safety help on the inside. I just knew to stay outside and play my leverage. And when (Manning) came back to me I said, 'Wow, he came back to me.' Then I saw Peyton getting pressure, thanks to the guys up front. He threw a wobbly ball and I just ran under it."
Adam Jones said that Kirkpatrick was listening and that next, with 1:07 left in the game, he did exactly what Joseph told him to do as he stared into a cluster formation of three receivers lined up tight.
"When I saw one come up, I knew that was my guy, but he wanted me to stay outside, so when he went outside, I just played great leverage," Kirkpatrick said.
Maybe the thing that impressed Jones even more is that Kirkpatrick is part of the backbone that held up under a night of adversity. That's the knock, right? In all the big games?
But Kirkpatrick responded with starting cornerback Terence Newman unable to continue in the middle of the third quarter, sapped by what appeared to be a virus that woke up with him Monday. And Kirkpatrick continued to play key blocking roles on the return teams that hammered the Broncos all night.
"We came in at half time and the main thing was, 'Let's not have that feeling like when we played Pittsburgh," Jones said. "We almost did, but we dug deep. It just shows the growth of the team and the guys not panicking."
Which is funny because left tackle Andrew Whitworth was saying the same thing about the offense's response to Hill's fumble in the middle of the third quarter, a potentially devastating giveaway inside the Denver 10 and the Bengals about to go up by 13.
Manning took merely 3:31 to turn it into a go-ahead touchdown.
"We were moving the ball so dang well. 'They got lucky.' That was kind of our reaction," Whitworth said. "It's OK.
We've got one more shot.' I thought it was great how the offense responded. When we stood up, numerous guys (said), 'It doesn't matter. We've got the ball now.' And sure enough we go down and answer. That's exactly what we needed."
Hill was crestfallen during and after the play, but by the end of the game he was processing how Denver outside linebacker Von Miller simply grabbed the ball from him.
"I was just fighting the other way. He was going the other way," Hill said. "Sometimes you just have to get down and get to the next play.
"I'm still a rookie. That's not an excuse," Hill said. "I'm still trying to figure out certain things on certain plays, how to hit certain things. It just comes with the reps and getting the feel for it."
On Monday, at least, the latest draft boards looked like they were getting figured out along with another venture into the postseason.