One bad throw brought the playoffs into sharper focus.
Dre Kirkpatrick returned an interception 30 yards for a touchdown with 2:41 to go, then picked off Manning again in the close seconds to secure a 37-28 victory on Monday night that put the Cincinnati Bengals back in the playoffs.
Cincinnati (10-4-1) will play in Pittsburgh next Sunday night, with the winner getting the AFC North title. The loser gets a wild card. The Bengals will have one thing in their favor: Finally breaking out of their prime time funk.
The Bengals got blown out in their two previous night games this season and were 18-41 all-time in prime time, including 10-20 on Monday nights. This one was particularly soothing.
''Until we had a win like this, people kept saying we couldn't win in prime time,'' said Andy Dalton, who is only 3-6 in prime time and 0-3 in the playoffs. ''So it was big for us to get this win. Regardless of what people were saying, this win meant more because it got us into the playoffs.''
The Broncos (11-4) were already there as AFC West champions. They could have clinched a first-round bye with a win on Monday. Instead, New England got home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Denver can still clinch the No. 2 seed by beating Oakland at home.
''It's disappointing,'' said Manning, who threw a season-high four interceptions. ''We had an opportunity to win this game tonight. We would have preferred that. We have another opportunity next week.''
Some things learned at Paul Brown Stadium:
ABOUT THOSE PLAYOFFS: Cincinnati's four straight playoff appearances are a franchise first. Cincinnati hasn't won a playoff game since the 1990 season, tied for the sixth-longest streak of futility in NFL history. They're 0-5 in the postseason since then, with all of the losses coming under coach Marvin Lewis.
HILL IS SOME ROOKIE: Jeremy Hill ran for 147 yards against the NFL's second-ranked run defense, including an 85-yard touchdown for Cincinnati's first points. He became the 10th Bengals player to run for 1,000 in a season. According to STATS, Hill is the third rookie in NFL history to rush for 140 yards four times in a season, joining Eric Dickerson (1983) and Curtis Martin (1995).
ANOTHER DALTON MISFIRE: Dalton threw too high to A.J. Green on Cincinnati's second series, resulting in an interception that Aqib Talib returned 33 yards for a touchdown. It was a reminder of Dalton's penchant for being off-target in the big games. The Bengals made sure Dalton spent much of the game handing it off or throwing short passes - 14 of his 17 completions went to a tight end or running back.
IMPERFECT PEYTON: Manning was 8-0 against Cincinnati coming into the game, throwing for 20 touchdowns with only five interceptions. He had nearly that many on Monday night, throwing a season-high four. The showing raised more questions about the quarterback, who missed much of practice last week with a strained right thigh.
''It wasn't good,'' said Manning, who was 28 of 44 for 311 yards with two touchdowns. ''With four interceptions, you're not going to beat many good football teams.''
NOTEWORTHY: Broncos safety T.J. Ward left in the fourth quarter with a neck injury. He'll be reevaluated in Denver. ... Green bruised his right biceps when he was hit on Talib's interception return. He was in and out of the lineup for the rest of the game and finished without a catch for only the second time in his career. ... Demaryius Thomas set a Broncos record with his ninth 100-yard receiving game. He also joined Marvin Harrison and Jerry Rice as the only players with three straight seasons of 1,400 yards receiving and 10 TD catches. ... The Bengals started Eric Winston at right tackle for the first time since they signed him on Dec. 2. Cincinnati rushed for 207 yards, averaging 5.6 yards per carry.
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