CINCINNATI —**For one quarter, the Broncos absolutely scorched the Bengals. With three touchdowns sparked by an opening 77-yard kickoff return to start the third quarter, Denver erased a 13-point halftime deficit and took the lead heading into the final quarter.
However, catching their stride for the 15-minute span ultimately could not compensate for the slow start and stumbling finish with the Broncos being outscored 30-7 in the other three quarters.
After Aqib Talib's pick-six to kick off scoring in the game, the Bengals responded with 20 unanswered points, including an explosive 85-yard TD run from Jeremy Hill on the first play from scrimmage after Talib's interception. Meanwhile, the Broncos offense failed to string together more than one first down on a drive until their last possession of the half, which ended in a missed field goal.
Check out photos from the second half of Monday night's game.
"We were frustrated at halftime," Jacob Tamme said. "In no phases of the game did we feel like we played well. Aqib made a great play and got the pick-six. Other than that, we just didn''t play well in the first half."
The Broncos knew they were better than what they showed, and they expected to play up those capabilities. In the third quarter, that's exactly what happened.
Despite wielding little to no momentum entering the second half, the Broncos got off on the right foot with a 77-yard kickoff return from Omar Bolden that set the stage for a C.J. Anderson touchdown run from a yard out. And though the Bengals countered shortly afterward with a touchdown of their own, the Broncos were far from finished.
They didn't get the benefit of an exceptional kickoff return on the next attempt, but the offense had found its rhythm and marched almost 80 yards down the field, finishing with a short touchdown pass to Emmanuel Sanders. But the biggest highlight of the drive and possibly of the game was a 33-yard catch by Sanders. Despite tight coverage from Terrance Newman — a little too tight when the pass was thrown, resulting in a pass interference call — Sanders used the only hand available to him, cradling the floated pass between his hand and shoulder as Newman took him to the ground deep down the right sideline.
The Broncos ended the Bengals' next drive with a forced fumble and recovery by Von Miller, and it was then Demaryius Thomas who drove Denver up the field. Thomas beat Newman on a deep post route over the middle for a 46-yard bomb. After another Thomas first down for 15 yards, Manning again found Sanders for the touchdown from five yards out to take the one-point lead.
For the Broncos, it was a showing of how their offense expects to perform. After struggling for the first half, they finally had Cincinnati backpedaling and trying to play damage control with Denver on the attack.
It was a bit of a reversal from the offensive M.O. that the Broncos have utilized recently with their refreshed rushing attack, but the running game was still effective to the point that it helped open up the passing game. Being down multiple scores necessitated leaning on passing more, and they found success in it to the tune of 168 yards and two touchdowns on 12-for-16 passing in the third quarter alone.
Then just as suddenly that the offensive output opened, it shut.
The fourth quarter looked more like the first and second quarters, beginning with a pick on the Broncos' first drive of the final quarter. With two three-and-outs and three interceptions to finish the game on their five fourth-quarter drives, Denver's offense was unproductive after one of its best offensive quarters of the season.
"We found a rhythm," Julius Thomas said of their third-quarter play. "We played not our best football today but we're still a really good team. So we'll find stretches where we get making plays and playing well and that happened in the third quarter, but we just weren't consistent enough to win the football game versus a playoff team."
Consistency stood out as the main issue with the Broncos' chances eroding in the fourth quarter as an increasingly heavy rainfall showered the field.
"The fourth quarter just didn't work for us," Demaryius Thomas said. "We had opportunities but we just didn't take advantage of them."
"You know, it's just little things happen sometimes here or there. We could have had better communication with our quarterback, especially on a couple of those turnovers I had. I could have tried to break it up. But you know it happens, it happens. They came out and played a good game and they deserved to win."
Even with Thomas' exceptional day in which he set a Broncos franchise record for most 100-yard receiving games in a season, the offense was slow to get going in the fourth quarter with disjointed efforts that failed to keep the chains moving. Miscommunications, penalties and turnovers all played a part on the offensive side, and issues in the other phases of the team hurt as well.
"We did some things better in the second half, but again, we didn't play good enough to win. In each phase we had a mistake that cost us," Tamme said, referring to problems not only on offense, but on special teams as well. "We've got to cover better. I was out there on those coverage plays and we're going to take a hard look at that and we're going to get better there, I can promise you that. We've got too many guys that are good special teams players to allow that to happen. And I think in all phases we've just got to play a little bit better."
In fewer words, Head Coach John Fox summarized the loss succinctly immediately after the game: "I think the Denver Broncos didn't play well enough to win tonight."
The following day, he expounded upon his thoughts further, noting each team's play execution and shifts in momentum.
"I think you've got to give them some credit," Fox said. "They had good execution and we didn't execute as well. That's true and it was true in all three phases. We gave up an 85-yard explosive run. We haven''t done that all season. Every time we would gain a little momentum, we would do something to give them some momentum back, not taking anything away from their football team. Like I said, they're in the playoffs too. It's not like they're a bad football team. Just on the turnover ratio alone, you're going to have some issues. It was a nine-point game and we had our chances all the way up to the end."
After the game concluded, the focus began to shift toward preparing for a key finale at home against the Raiders as the Broncos tried to put the disappointing loss behind them.
"We had a setback tonight and we'll learn from it," Fox said. "We'll analyze it and decipher what went wrong and hopefully get it fixed and get ready for our opponent, the Raiders, next week."