CINCINNATI –** Heading into Sunday's game, Peyton Manning continuously reiterated that Sunday's game was just as significant for the Broncos as the Bengals.
With the win, the Broncos would clinch the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye, while the Bengals needed a win in one of their final two games to secure a playoff spot. But the Bengals were able to pick off Manning twice in critical situations and run away with the win, and a playoff berth, in the jungle.
There were spurts of greatness from the Broncos' offense, but the team was unable to maintain any kind of offensive rhythm.
"We just have to be more consistent for four quarters," Manning said during his postgame press conference. "Can't play well the end of the second quarter and the beginning of the third and then not play well in the first and not play well in the fourth. So against good football teams you have to be more consistent and I've got to play better as well."
Check out photos from the first half of Monday's game in Cincinnati.
In the first half, the Broncos were unable to get an offensive score on the board and Manning garnered just 88 passing yards in the first 30 minutes. The Broncos' only score heading into the locker room at the half came from an Aqib Talib pick-six. But the Broncos came storming out in the third quarter as Omar Bolden's 77-yard kickoff return put the Broncos in excellent field position. Manning found Demaryius Thomas for a 19-yard gain and C.J. Anderson was able to sneak in for the 1-yard score.
Emmanuel Sanders had TD receptions of 4 and 5 yards on their next two possessions to give the Broncos a one-point lead. Manning said the offense's execution improved in the third frame.
"We were able to put together some first downs, second downs, back to first down," Manning said. "We just had a lot of three-and-outs early in the game and never got into much of a flow. Give them a lot of credit. They out executed us there in the first half, the third quarter Omar's kick return gave us some momentum and we were able to capitalize and then had two good drives after that.
"Obviously the fourth quarter though, I made some bad throws and that really put us in a bind."
The Broncos' five fourth quarter drives resulted in three interceptions and two punts. Perhaps the game-sealing play, Dre Kirkpatrick returned Manning's third interception of the night 30 yards for a touchdown with less than three minutes to play. Thomas called it a "miscommunication" as Kirkpatrick stepped up to cut off the pass, corralled it and ran it in for the score.
The Broncos were down by just two at that point with the opportunity to forge a comeback drive.
"It was a bad throw, the guy had good coverage, had a little route to DT, the guy covered it well," Manning said. "I shouldn't have thrown it to him, should have gotten off, probably had Emmanuel open over the middle. I might have even had Julius [Thomas], I think his guy might have fallen down. Definitely picked the wrong guy to throw it to."
Denver drove 61 yards on the next drive but Kirkpatrick intercepted Manning again with 1:14 left. This is just the fifth time in Manning's career he has thrown four interceptions and the first time since 2010.
When asked to rate his performance after the game, Manning was self-critical.
"It wasn't good. Four interceptions. You're not going to beat very many good football teams," he said. "Did some good things during the third quarter, gave ourselves a chance and had the lead there in the fourth and then field position wasn't very good, we couldn't flip it and then of course turning it over there at the end for the interception for the touchdown, that put them up two scores so that's definitely a throw you can't make in that situation."
While the loss was disappointing and dropped the Broncos to 11-4, there is still plenty to play for next week as they have the opportunity to clinch the No. 2 seed in the AFC and a first round bye if they defeat the Raiders at home in the regular-season finale.
Despite sitting at the bottom of the division, the Raiders defeated the Bills on Sunday so a win is far from a guarantee. With the Broncos' Week 4 bye far in the rearview mirror and a plethora of players battling injuries, a first-round bye would be a welcomed sight.
The Broncos will have to learn from their costly mistakes on Monday night.
"We have no choice," Manning said of moving past tonight's loss to get the Week 17 win." We have to find a way to learn from this and correct the mistakes throughout and find a way to play better next week and try to get a win against a division team so that's all you can do, it's disappointing having the opportunity to win this game tonight, certainly we would have preferred that but we have another opportunity next week and that's all we can do is put this one behind us and learn from it and try to get a win next week."