Tuesday December 23rd, 2014

Peyton Manning is, beyond any doubt, one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. 

And right now, he is struggling badly.

The Bengals intercepted Manning four times, including a pick-six by Dre Kirkpatrick with 2:41 left that all but sealed Cincinnati's 37-28 win. Kirkpatrick then made sure it was over about 90 seconds later, sprawling along the sideline to swipe another wobbly, errant throw from the future Hall of Fame QB.

Cincinnati is playoff-bound with the result and has a shot to capture the AFC North next week in Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, Denver's shot at the No. 1 overall seed has vanished, and it may need a Week 17 win to hold onto a first-round bye.

The more pressing issue for the defending AFC champs, though, is that Manning cannot snap himself out of an ongoing slump. The Denver offense awoke in the third quarter, long enough to score 21 points and for Manning to fire a pair of TD passes. That outburst wound up being overshadowed by the offense's three scoreless quarters and the quarter of Manning turnovers.

"Uh, yeah," Manning answered after the loss when asked if he was OK physically. In last week's win alone, Manning had suffered from a thigh injury and some flu-like symptoms during the game. 

In his last three games now, Manning has thrown six interceptions to three touchdowns. His last truly impressive performance came a month ago, Nov. 23, in a 38-35 win over Miami: 28-of-35 for 257 yards and four touchdowns, with no INTs. The week prior to that, Denver scored seven points in a loss to St. Louis.

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Maybe this is just a slump for Manning, egged on by facing the Rams', Bills' and now Bengals' defenses. Certainly, Cincinnati deserves ample credit for rushing Manning on Monday night. Manning's ghastly throw on the Kirkpatrick INT-turned-touchdown came as he fell onto his back foot, pressure coming off the right edge of Denver's line.

But the longer Manning's struggle drags on, the less likely it becomes that he suddenly snaps out of it in the playoffs.

"It wasn't good," said Manning of his night. "Four interceptions, you're not going to beat very many good football teams. We did some good things in the third quarter, gave ourselves a chance. ... Field position wasn't very good, we couldn't flip it, then at the end that turnover. That's definitely a throw you can't make in that situation."

Three more thoughts on the Bengals' clutch victory:

1. About that Andy Dalton narrative ...: Dalton entered this game 2-6 in prime-time affairs. Thankfully, ESPN announcer Mike Tirico reminded the viewing public that those win-loss totals are reflective of an entire team's effort, not just the issues a quarterback may have.

One way around any mental block Dalton may have in big games, however, was for Cincinnati to lean on everyone but its quarterback. That's just what offensive coordinator Hue Jackson did, despite star receiver A.J. Green suffering an arm injury in the first quarter ... on a Dalton pick-six no less.

Jeremy Hill pulled Cincinnati back even on the next snap, sprinting 85 yards to pay dirt. From there, Jackson utilized a creative play-calling approach that leaned on misdirection. By doing so, he limited how many risky throws Dalton had to attempt (and Dalton still nearly fired two or three more interceptions), plus took advantage of Dalton's ability to gain yards with his feet.

"It's big, it gives us momentum going into next week," Dalton told the NFL Network. "We had to do whatever it took to win this game."

The final numbers for Dalton look pretty strong, especially against a very good Denver defense: 17-of-26 for 146 yards, two touchdowns, that lone INT and another 25 yards on the ground. 

Was it a performance for the ages by the Bengals' oft-criticized quarterback? Hardly. Yet, on a night when Manning made a slew of costly mistakes, Dalton buried his early error under three-plus quarters of steady play.

2. The Broncos' linebacker injuries caught up to them: If you're looking for an explanation why Cincinnati had so much success with its play fakes and pulling tight ends, start here. Denver placed linebacker Danny Trevathan on injured reserve Monday and Brandon Marshall missed his second consecutive game with a nagging foot injury.

Cincinnati took advantage by attacking fill-in options Todd Davis and Steven Johnson, both in the run and passing games. 

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Dalton's second touchdown pass of the night, a 22-yarder to Gio Bernard, was a perfect example of that aim. The Bengals cleared out the field to Dalton's left, then streaked Bernard across that way, Johnson trailing behind him. Dalton stepped up into the pocket and hit Bernard, who turned upfield and waltzed into the end zone untouched.

Hill and Bernard combined for 228 yards, including 147 rushing from Hill and 45 receiving from Bernard. Denver simply had no answers.

3. So many problems on special teams: This one cut both ways, but it was Denver in particular that found itself flailing in kick coverage. 

One of the Broncos' biggest plays Monday came courtesy of Omar Bolden, who returned the second half kickoff 77 yards to set up a C.J. Anderson touchdown. Cincinnati's Adam Jones quickly responded with an 80-yard return of his own, leading to the Dalton-to-Bernard touchdown pass. 

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All told, Jones averaged 44.7 yards on three kick returns and 11.5 yards on two punt returns. (He also was responsible for one of the four Bengals' interceptions.) Then there was a vitally important 44-yard punt return by Brandon Tate, who nearly took one the distance with his team down one in the fourth quarter. Mike Nugent's field goal moments later put Cincinnati ahead for good.

Jones entered Monday leading the league in yards-per-kick return at 31.4, and he added to his cushion vs. Denver. Special teams can make or break playoff games -- remember Jacoby Jones' 109-yard Super Bowl kickoff return a couple years back? Cincinnati is as well-equipped as any contender to come up with a big play there. 

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