CINCINNATI** – After leading throughout the game's first three quarters, Denver found itself in a tough situation less than a minute into the fourth quarter.
The offense had not scored since early in the second quarter, the Bengals had reeled off 17 in a row and the Broncos had been intercepted on back-to-back possessions.
With the exception of the opening kickoff of the third quarter, which Denver's Trindon Holliday returned 105 yards for a touchdown, Cincinnati had seemingly taken control after halftime.
"We knew this was going to be a tough game and a team that is (coming in) on three losses in a row and had a bye week," Head Coach John Fox said. "You're kind of coming into a hornet's nest, and they're a talented football team."
But after a 2-yard touchdown run by Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis gave Cincinnati a 20-17 lead with 14:10 to play, Denver remained confident.
"I didn't see any doubt on anybody's faces as we were getting into the fourth quarter," cornerback Champ Bailey said. "Everybody felt confident, nobody blinked an eye. We just stayed focused and made sure we went and did our job and got the win."
Despite being intercepted on both of his third-quarter possessions, Manning refused to flinch on the Broncos' first offensive series of the fourth quarter.
"I've certainly been there before," Manning said. "My dad always talked about, 'You have to get back to level zero.' You have to erase the play from your mind – a good play or a bad play – and move on to the next one."
The Bengals' lead was short-lived, as Manning responded by leading the offense on its second 80-yard touchdown drive of the afternoon. Facing third-and-3 from his own 27-yard line early in the drive, Manning found wide receiver Eric Decker among a crowd of defenders over the middle, and Decker was able to get downfield and turn the short pass into a 30-yard gain.
Manning's ability to maintain his composure came as no surprise to Bailey.
"Confidence," Bailey said of what makes Manning so good in the fourth quarter. "Poise, I don't see many things shake him. You look at the first quarter in Atlanta, we almost came back and won that game. That just shows a lot about his character."
That play sparked an emphatic response to Denver's first deficit of the day, as the Broncos covered 80 yards in just five plays to quickly regain the lead at 24-20.
"We faced some adversity there, which we have certainly faced so far this season," Manning said. "It was good to see both sides of the ball respond. We put an 80-yard drive together after they took the lead, Decker made a huge play on third down, making a big run."
Cincinnati struggled to move the ball due to penalties on the following possession, with a holding call drawn by linebacker Von Miller putting the Bengals in a desperate down and distance of third-and-25.
That's when Bailey, who battled back and forth with Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green throughout the afternoon, came up with his first pick of the season. Bailey's interception was a rewarding one in a difficult matchup against one of the game's top wideouts, who had gotten by Bailey earlier for a 10-yard touchdown reception.
"It's been a long time coming," Bailey said. "But I knew if I got enough opportunities, I would get one today."
Shortly after the interception, the offense found paydirt again, this time on a 4-yard touchdown pass from Manning to Decker. Just like that, Denver had taken an 11-point lead and regained control of the game.
"There's no panic, you're going to be in some tough situations on the road against good teams," wide receiver Brandon Stokley said. "And this is a good team so we knew it was going to be a tough fight. You're going to have some ups and some downs, but you just have to play the whole game. That's kind of our mindset and we were able to make some plays there down the stretch."
Though the Broncos delivered a dramatic turnaround after falling behind early in the fourth quarter, the explanation for the strong finish didn't involve any memorable speeches or significant changes to the team's approach. Instead, it was a matter of getting back to basics.
"I think all football players, when the fourth quarter comes around, the pressure is on – that's when you want to rely on your fundamentals and techniques," said Manning, who recorded his NFL-record 48th comeback in the fourth quarter or overtime. "I had an old coach tell me, 'That's why you treat practice like a game. Put yourself in those pressure situations during the week, so when those fourth quarters come around, you feel like you're prepared.' I think we can draw on this type of game today."
With Manning's steady hand leading the way, the Broncos are never out of any game, as they showed in ultimately futile efforts against Atlanta, Houston and New England. The same persistence that helped Denver come back against the Falcons and Patriots has now helped the Broncos erase deficits in two of the past three weeks, including a record-setting 24-point comeback in Week 6 against San Diego. A great deal of the recent success finishing games can be explained by the team's quarterback.
"He's special," Fox said of Manning. "As far as having a guy under center in that fourth quarter when a lot of games are won and lost in this league, he finishes the race pretty well."