Updated: 4 p.m.
How did that happen?
It looked like the Bengals had grabbed certain defeat and turned it into a sweet 7-6 Opening Day victory Sunday at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium when running back Cedric Benson's one-yard touchdown run with 38 seconds left capped a dizzying 91-yard drive that took 5:43 off the clock and egg off the offense.
But with the Broncos desperate, quarterback Kyle Orton heaved a pass to wide receiver Brandon Marshall on the sidelines and Bengals cornerback Leon Hall tapped it high into the air. It bounded into the arms of wide receiver Brandon Stokley for a numbing 87-yard touchdown pass and a 12-7 Broncos victory.
The brilliant defense got absolutely no help from a staggering offense that offered no consistent running game or protection for quarterback Carson Palmer and the boos of 62,831 greeted the third-quarter gun as the Bengals flirted with their first shutout since 2001.
But then came the final 5:43 as Palmer celebrated his comeback by getting seven first downs in the final drive and finishing with 247 yards on 21-of-32 passing.
In the middle of the fourth quarter the defense gave the Bengals one final shot when defensive end Antwan Odom came up with his second sack of the game to take the Broncos out of field-goal range, setting up the Bengals at their own nine with 6:21 left.
Palmer converted a third-down throw to wide receiver Chad Ochocinco and Benson (76 yards on 21 carries) ripped off a 20-yard run. Following a 15-yard completion to wide receiver Andre Caldwell, the Bengals had a first down at the two-minute warning at the Denver 32. Throws to running back Brian Leonard and Caldwell put the Bengals on the 1 with 41 seconds left, and the last throw to Caldwell got reviewed to see if it was a touchdown before Benson got in.
Offense struggles through third
It was the only way the third quarter could end after the Bengals got a 23-yard throw from Palmer to wide receiver Chad Ochocinco. It got wiped out when The Ocho was called for pushing off on cornerback Champ Bailey, but right guard Bobbie Williams also got called for being illegally downfield on the same play, the second such call on the line in the game.
The Bengals could eke out just 16 yards in the third quarter and had only 201 yards for the game against a Denver defense that was supposed to be vulnerable. Palmer was just 13-of-23 passing for 163 yards in the first three quarters and Benson had just 56 yards on 17 carries.
The misery accelerated on the first series of the second half when wide receiver Laveranues Coles dropped a third-down pass well beyond the sticks for his second drop of the game. A few snaps before, fullback Jeremi Johnson dropped a wide-open ball.
On the next series Chris Henry replaced Coles, but the offense couldn't protect Palmer and gave up back-to-back sacks with 8:29 left in the third quarter. On second-and-five Benson got bowled over by blitzing inside backer Mario Haggan for a 10-yard loss and on third down defensive end Darrell Reid wheeled past right tackle Anthony Collins.
As bad as the offense was, the defense was twice as good in giving up field goals of 48 and 50 yards.
The defense had a brilliant first half in which it didn't give up a third-down conversion until the final minute, but it was a costly final minute because the Broncos pieced together their only drive of the game that was capped by Matt Prater's 48-yard field goal at the halftime gun that gave Denver a 3-0 lead.
Defense solid early
After deferring the opening kickoff, the Bengals really showed confidence in their defense again with about four minutes left in a scoreless first quarter when they ran a fake punt on fourth-and-two from the Denver 42 with running back Brian Leonard taking a direct snap and following the pulling Kyle Cook for five yards to keep the drive alive. And the Bengals looked ready to strike first when Benson took a pass in the flat, made linebacker Andra Davis miss, and picked up 19 yards.
But the drive stalled and when Shayne Graham attempted a 28-yard field goal, long snapper Brad St. Louis wheeled a snap behind the holder that rolled all the way to the Denver 44.
With time ticking down in the quarter, the defense stepped up big. Defensive lineman Jon Fanene got the first sack of the year on first down and Odom got the second one as the Bengals began their assault on last year's total of 17.
The Bengals saved their biggest play of the quarter for the last when Palmer hit Ochocinco on the sidelines and The Ocho put on the brakes and screeched to the middle of the field for a 34-yard catch-and-run. It took him just one quarter to catch a ball longer than his high of 26 yards last year.
But the Bengals, who had their first two drives blown up on a holding penalty on Ochocinco and an illegal man downfield call on Cook at center, couldn't finish anything off and couldn't take advantage of Ocho's big play. Palmer, 5-of-8 in the first quarter for 98 yards, got sacked for a 10-yard loss when Collins appeared to get beat inside by Davis.
The Bengals moved the ball, but their 130-27 edge in yards still translated to 0-0 at the end of the quarter.
The offense couldn't get out of its own way as the game veered into the second quarter. Palmer did convert two third-and-longs, the last one Coles' first catch as a Bengal when Palmer scrambled and hit him for an 11-yard play even though he was scrambling right to left.
But on the next third down when Palmer went for The Ocho at the Denver 20 and it got tipped high in the air by cornerback Champ Bailey, where inside linebacker Wesley Woodyard hauled it in with about six minutes left in the first half.
Left guard Nate Livings left the game right before that snap with a knee injury that kept him sidelined for the rest of the game and he was replaced by Evan Mathis.
And after giving up two runs of a total of 23 yards on the first two snaps to running back Correll Buckhalter, the defense settled down and stopped Denver at its own 43. The Bengals put rookie end Michael Johnson in the game with starting ends Odom and Robert Geathers on third down and everyone on the line appeared to be in a two-point stance on a blitz. Safety Chris Crocker appeared to move to nickel back and defended the third-and-nine incompletion to wide receiver Brandon Stokley.
The Bengals defense got a three-and-out on the next series when rookie punter Kevin Huber dropped one out of bounds at the Denver 16 and on third-and-three the Bengals dropped seven, rushed four and got Odom to tip Kyle Orton's pass over the middle.
PREGAME NOTES:Running back DeDe Dorsey and safety Tom Nelson, the darlings of Cutdown Day, got some hard knocks on Gameday morning when they were put on the inatcive list.
Also not dressed for the Bengals season opener against the Broncos at Paul Brown Stadium were defensive end Frostee Rucker, rookie tight end Chase Coffman and wide receiver Jerome Simpson. The two most injured Bengals, cornerback David Jones (foot) and offensive lineman Scott Kooistra (knee) were also down.
On Friday Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said the 45-man roster on game days is "a reflection of health, game plan and a reflection of the opponent," and said he had many options available this Sunday compared to last year's injury flood.
Coffman's struggles trying to adapt to blocking in the NFL have been well documented so that could indicate the Bengals plan on a heavy dose of the run against a Denver defense that finished 27th against the rush last year. As expected, the Bengals kept active all six linebackers as well as rookie defensive end Michael Johnson, expected to make an impact on special teams.
The decision to put rookie wide receiver Quan Cosby returning punts allowed the Bengals to sit both Simpson and Nelson. Nelson, a safety, can also play cornerback, but so can starting safety Chris Crocker and the club also needs a spot at DB for safety Kyries Hebert, their special teams captain. Simpson, the second-round pick from 2008, continues to have problems getting on the field. Sunday was the ninth game of his career he was inactive on game day.
The inactive list also gets the speculation heightened for Monday, when the Bengals have to make a roster move when rookie right tackle Andre Smith's roster exemption expires. It would appear the one name that has to go to make room would come off the inactve list. Coffman, Jones, Kooistra and Rucker appear to be safe, so it could come down to Nelson, Dorsey or Simpson.
Lewis chose to introduce the offensive starters indvidually as the club appeared in its all white uniforms, an ensemble in which the Bengals have a 5-10 record.