CINCINNATI --You can get by with missed tackles, mistiming and a minus-2 turnover margin against some teams. But not against a team like Cincinnati, which became just the fourth team to qualify for at least four consecutive postseasons Monday, joining the Broncos, Patriots and Packers.
"It wasn't good. Four interceptions. You're not going to beat very many good football teams," said quarterback Peyton Manning after a 37-28 loss that knocked the Broncos out of contention for the AFC's top seed, and left them still one win away from a bye week that a hurting team with a lengthy injury report desperately needs.
But this was a three-phase loss, and interceptions were only part of the carnage.
The offense bogged down because of four giveaways, and was unable to consistently move the football in three of four quarters. In the third quarter, it racked up 21 points and averaged one first down every 1.67 snaps; in the other three quarters, it didn't score and averaged one first down every 5.00 snaps -- well below a sustainable rate.
The defense endured its worst performance against the run all season, allowing 207 yards -- 74 more than it did in any of the first 14 regular-season games this season. An 85-yard Jeremy Hill touchdown run that was the second-longest carry ever allowed by the Broncos skewed the numbers, but Cincinnati still moved the chains at a brisk pace when they ran -- even when Hill's run is taken out of the mix.
The special teams allowed Adam Jones to race 80 yards with one kickoff return and Brandon Tate to sprint 49 yards with another. Both plays put the Bengals on short fields that led directly to 10 points, contributing to a night that saw the Bengals begin five drives in Denver territory, turning those into 20 points.
"They made better plays than us in all phases of the field," said defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. "I mean, their defense picked the ball off four times, they had great field position on special teams, and then we allowed explosive plays in the run game. It's just something we're not accustomed to."
Check out photos from the second half of Monday night's game.
"We just played terrible," said running back C.J. Anderson, a sentiment he repeated throughout his postgame question-and-answer session.
Added linebacker Von Miller: "We did some things well, but we did a lot of things wrong."
Starting in the first quarter, when Cincinnati running back Jeremy Hill eluded Todd Davis in the backfield and took off, scampering 85 yards for a touchdown run that was the second longest ever allowed by the Broncos in their 55-season history. In one carry, Hill gained 13 more yards than the Broncos allowed, on average, in their first 14 games.
And while the Broncos prevented big plays from that point forward -- the Bengals' longest gain after Hill's gallop was 23 yards -- Cincinnati had success on underneath routes to tight end Jermaine Gresham and running back Giovani Bernard, which was similar to how the Chargers moved the football eight days earlier in San Diego.
Gresham and Bernard combined for 107 yards on 14 receptions. Cincinnati's wide receivers had just 39 yards on three catches. But Andy Dalton still threw two touchdown passes, hitting a wide-open Gresham for a 1-yard score and finding Bernard for a 22-yard touchdown. Both came on short fields set up by an interception and an 80-yard kickoff return, respectively, but that was of no salce.
"I knew that Andy Dalton wasn't going to try (to throw at) me and (Aqib) Talib all game, so you knew he was going to try to force it to the tight end and the running backs," said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. "They made the plays. They caught us when we were in a lot of mans and just ran all crossers and kind of set a pick on Stevie (Johnson)."
And Johnson, who worked as a base-package middle linebacker in the first half but added the nickel role to his workload after halftime, was left grasping after Bernard's touchdown.
"I feel as though I could have been better on that," Johnson said. "When I watch the film and evaluate myself, I'll know more then, but that's just a play that sticks out in my head right now.
"It's just going to kind of sting for a little bit, but I'll be all right."
The Broncos hope they can say the same of themselves as the postseason draws closer, the questions to answer become more urgent, and the injuries and bruises accumulate.
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