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Broncos 20, Bengals 17 (OT): Three keys, unlocked

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DENVER -- **As frustrating as the two blown double-digit leads this month were, the Broncos' three comebacks from 14 points down against three playoff-bound teams were at least as exhilarating.

Just like they did against the Chiefs and Patriots, the Broncos shook off an early deficit, made the necessary adjustments and dominated down the stretch, rallying from a 14-0 deficit for a thrilling 20-17 overtime win over the AFC North champion Bengals at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Monday night.

Only a shanked 45-yard field-goal attempt at the final gun of regulation by Brandon McManus knocked the Broncos off course. But they quickly regained their composure, and after winning the overtime coin toss, marched into range of a 37-yard kick that provided the winning points, redemption for McManus and led to a win that sealed the Broncos' franchise-record fifth consecutive playoff appearance.

McManus' redemption mirrored that of the Broncos. The misfire at the end of regulation was his worst kick as a professional -- "I'm 24 years old, and I don't think I've ever kicked a ball like that in my life," he said -- but his overtime kick was true.

"I didn't point my toe really at all, and I just wrapped the ball real bad," McManus said. "But I knew I had to move past it. It was a tie game at that point, so I knew that I most likely had to kick another one in overtime."

He did, and after a bad snap got away from AJ McCarron in overtime, DeMarcus Ware fell on the football to give the Broncos their third overtime win over the season.

The game exacted a physical toll. T.J. Ward's ankle injury flared up again. Brandon Marshall left with an ankle injury of his own. Brock Osweiler has an elbow issue to go along with his shoulder injury. C.J. Anderson injured his back, but returned.

But the Broncos emerged victorious, and now sit just one win away from having all their goals still within reach.

How did the three keys to Monday's game bear out?

1. Be sixty-minute men.

Again, the Broncos only played half a game -- although they did manage to minimize the damage in their poor half to just a 14-3 deficit.

Unlike their other December outings, the Broncos started slow, allowing the Bengals to march 80 yards in 15 plays and consume 7:34 of the first quarter on their game-opening drive to a 5-yard A.J. Green touchdown reception. It was the longest drive allowed by the Broncos in terms of plays and time elapsed this year.

At one point in the second quarter, the Bengals had run 37 plays for 205 yards, while the Broncos had just 10 plays for 29 yards. Only a Mike Nugent missed field-goal attempt from 45 yards kept the Broncos from being down three scores.

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But after Nugent's slice, the offense went to the no-huddle, three-wide receiver set, and the Broncos began to cook. Their drive stalled in the red zone, but they were able to salvage a field goal and a 14-3 deficit from a half in which they were thoroughly dominated.

The field goal was the first salvo of a 17-point sprint that put the Broncos in front by the fourth quarter. Once again, the Broncos played half a game in which they were arguably the league's best team, and another half in which they were one of its worst.

"We do have to go find a consistency but we have shown some flashes of being able to do that," Head Coach Gary Kubiak said. "As I said all last week talking to you guys, we're going to hang on to the positives and we're going to keep working on the negatives."

2. Pressure AJ McCarron.

It took a while, but the Broncos eventually picked the lock of the dead-bolt blocking that protected the Bengals' first-year starting quarterback, attacking him in the second half and, finally, finishing him off in overtime with first-down pressure that rattled the Bengals and might have helped lead to the errant second-down snap that Ware recoverd.

The Broncos hit McCarron five times, sacked him twice and forced him into more checkdowns in the second half. They loaded the box to stop the run and provide increased pressure, moving linebackers and safeties over the A- and B-gaps. Sometimes they rushed them; at others, they dropped them into coverage, but it all had the effect of discombobulating the young passer.

McCarron didn't break, but he buckled. After completing 12 of his 17 passes for 119 yards in the first half, he amassed just 81 yards on 10-of-18 passing after that, and when sacks were factored in, the Bengals' average per pass play plummeted from 7.0 yards to less than half that: 3.35 yards.

3. Stay balanced on offense.

Although the Broncos eventually went heavy with three-wide receiver, no-huddle looks, they were able to run out of this package, particularly in the fourth quarter, when C.J. Anderson's 39-yard burst to the left side gave the Broncos their first lead of the game.

When the Broncos go three-wide, they're not going to have even a 60-40 pass-to-run ratio, and their numbers after halftime reflected this: 15 runs and 32 pass plays. It's always a question of whether the run can be an effective deterrent to keep the defense honest, and the Broncos answered that emphatically, as C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman combined for 98 yards on 13 carries in the second half and overtime -- a 7.54-yard average that will do nicely, thank you.

From on the field to inside the locker room, the emotional scene after a thrilling overtime victory over the Bengals.

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