Coming into their Monday Night Football game against the Bengals, the Broncos were facing a reality where they could fall all the way to the sixth seed, or miss the postseason entirely, with a series of calamitous outcomes. Their 7–0 start to the season had fallen away long ago, and they'd lost four of their last seven games since. An offense that was stuck in a deep freeze hadn't scored a single point in the second half in three straight games, and this game was the third-coldest game in Denver history, with a starting temperature of 16 degrees. The Broncos' 20–17 overtime win over Cincinnati assured Denver a playoff spot, but it certainly wasn't easy.
This time around, the offense was stuck in neutral in the first half instead. Brandon McManus's 23-yard field goal with 18 seconds left in the first half were the first points Denver put on the board. In the first half, Cincinnati, who had a 14–3 lead after the first 30 minutes, had 16 first downs to Denver's 16 offensive plays. The Bengals were making Denver's league-leading defense look like a bottom-tier unit, and the combination of quarterback AJ McCarron and receiver A.J. Green torched the secondary in all kinds of ways, just as Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown had done the week before.
And then, after the half, Denver got things together on both sides of the ball. Instead of the predictable plan one generally associates with Gary Kubiak, the Broncos came out with more no-huddle, mitigating the overall lack of schematic creativity and forcing the Bengals into their base defensive sets. As the fourth quarter loomed, Marvin Lewis's defenders missed more and more tackles as the Denver altitude got to them, and Denver went ahead 17–14 on a 39-yard C.J. Anderson touchdown run with 11:17 left in regulation.
“We flip-flopped things,” Osweiler told ESPN's Lisa Salters about the offensive improvement in the second half. “We've started fast and finished slow, and we thought we'd do the opposite this week. Nothing special. We really just honed in, one play at a time. We focused on our jobs, one play at a time, and we were able to march down the field.”
On defense, coordinator Wade Phillips dialed up more zone coverages, taking his secondary out of the risks of aggressive man coverage, and Denver was finally able to slow down the Bengals' passing offense. A Cincinnati ground game that put up 85 yards in the first half managed just 23 more yards in the second half and into overtime, and McCarron was grounded. He finished with 22 completions in 35 attempts for 200 yards and a touchdown, but just 81 yards came after the first half was done.
But when Mike Nugent banged out a 52-yard field goal with 6:51 left in regulation, that tied the score at 17, and McManus's horrible shank miss from 45 yards out with four seconds left in regulation sent the game into overtime.
McManus recovered well, kicking a 37-yard field goal with 10:05 left in the extra period to put the Broncos back up on top, and then it was up to the Bengals to keep the game going, or win it outright. They drove down the field, but the game should have ended one play before it did. With 9:53 left in overtime, Broncos pass-rusher Von Miller clearly forced the ball out of McCarron's throwing hand before he was able to move the ball forward, but Ed Hochuli's crew called it an incompletion and somehow kept the call on review. We then had the possibility of several AFC playoff outcomes determined by what was clearly a bad call, but the Bengals saved Hochuli's bacon on the very next play. A bumbled shotgun snap from center Russell Bodine to McCarron was recovered by Denver's DeMarcus Ware, and the game was over.
“It was my fault," McCarron said, also revealing that he hurt his wrist on the play. "I told the team and the offensive guys that. I told Russ that I looked up to see the coverage and the snap caught me by surprise. I take the blame -- it was my fault.”
For the Broncos, it was a major win. And for Osweiler, it was an especially sweet validation: he proved that he could manage to take his team, with its sub-par offensive line and generally dismal rushing attack, on a thrilling comeback ride.
“It means everything,” he said. “That's why you lace them up, that's why you show up in April and go back to work, and into training camp. You show up so you can make the playoffs, and it means a lot to this football team.”
Kubiak was impressed with his young quarterback, as well -- especially the poise it took to think differently throughout the game and perform the way he needed to when it mattered most.
“That’s extremely impressive, but it’s also extremely impressive in the first half to not have the football at all and keep your poise. You know, a lot of guys get frustrated and do something wrong. He just hung in there, he makes a big play to Emmanuel [Sanders] right before the half, goes down and gets us some points. I think that composure is really about really the course of the game. In the National Football League, there's a lot of one-score, close football games, and he just hung in there until we got ourselves back in that position and played extremely well at that time."
Denver will host the Chargers next Sunday, and watch the Chiefs closely to see who will take the AFC West. Most certainly, this win was the one they needed more than any other.