Bengals-Broncos always seems to be huge. Especially in December and it is again Sunday (4:05 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) when the Bengals take their heavenly hopes a Mile High to begin a best-of-four dash to the regular-season finale.
First of all, every Cincy kid knows rookie tight end Bob Trumpy's 58-yard TD from John Stofa was the centerpiece of the expansion Bengals' first win ever, 24-10, over the Broncos in the Humphrey-Nixon fall of 1968 at Nippert Stadium. Long before University of Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder would shock the establishment at Nippert.
So naturally the Bengals and Broncos are one of five AFC teams locked at 7-6. The New York Times playoff simulator is all quite calculating. If the Bengals go 3-1, they've got a 95 percent chance or better to make the playoffs. If they merely split, it's 32 percent or less.
Only if they win division games against Baltimore (at Paul Brown Stadium Dec. 26) and the get-ready-to-flex Jan. 9 finale in Cleveland and lose to the Broncos and Chiefs do they have a better than even shot. And then the Times says it's only 52 percent.
The Bengals have been there before with the Broncos and that's why it's also really huge for Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, who says he 'grew up in Denver,' during his first six seasons in the league as an offensive assistant in a variety of roles. He lived two of those Bengals-Broncos moments.
Seven years ago at PBS in the next-to-last game of the season, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick pick-sixed Broncos Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning in the last five minutes as the snow swirled to secure a Wild Card berth.
A year and a week later in another next-to-last game of the year, the Bengals and backup quarterback AJ McCarron went a Mile High for a Monday night win that would give the AFC North champion Bengals a first-round bye in the playoffs. But Callahan guided another backup, someone named Brock Osweiler, quarterbacking the Broncos from a 14-0 deficit to a 20-17 overtime victory on the way to the Super Bowl title.
Yet there's another sobering reason why this one means much to Callahan. The Broncos are still mourning the sudden death of 33-year-old Demaryius Thomas, their marvelous four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver who played nine seasons in Denver and, yes, had seven catches for 59 yards in that devastating Monday night game.
Callahan is mourning, too. He was there from the day they took Thomas in the first round out of Georgia Tech in 2010 to when he celebrated winning it all with him that night in Santa Clara.
"DT was one of my favorite players I've ever been around," Callahan said. "He was a fantastic player. Everything you'd ever want in a receiver. Smart, physical, big and fast. Unselfish."
There's a piece of Thomas in Callahan's Cincinnati basement, where on the wall is a signed photo by Manning and all his receivers that participated in Manning's NFL-record 55 touchdown passes in the Broncos' 2013 season.
"I loved being around him because of his personality," Callahan said. "Always smiling and laughing. He loved his teammates and they loved him. All the coaches' and players' kids gravitated to him and he loved kids."
Manning is another big figure in Callahan's career. Denver is "where I learned how to coach in the NFL," and he capped it off as Manning's position coach in that Super Bowl season.
Also on Callahan's wall is a signed "Braveheart," poster by Mel Gibson, who starred in Callahan's favorite movie. A gift from Manning. Back in this past training camp Callahan and Bengals wide receivers coach Troy Walters, a Manning target from the Colts days, went to Canton to congratulate him on his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction.
So Callahan has been here before, too. Before helping Joe Burrow in his first playoff push while on the verge of virtually every club passing record for a season, he made sure Osweiler got Manning to that Super Bowl when he went 5-2 in the last seven games of that season while Manning healed.
That means Burrow is getting a big taste of Manning via Callahan.
"The intensity of preparation was the thing that's helped the most," Callahan said of Manning's impact. "The detail and focus."
Bengals-Broncos. It always seems to mean something. And this Mile High trip, a little more than that as Callahan thinks of DT.
"It's very sad for me personally," Callahan said. "He was a wonderful human."