Dec 22, 2014; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) stands at the line of scrimmage in the second half against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals won 37-28. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
The Denver Broncos had been steamrolling their opponents the past month or so.
All of their opponents were (at the time) playoff hopefuls.
All were handled, on both sides of the ball, with relative ease.
The Broncos were dominant and looked more than ready for the playoffs.
On Monday night in Cincinnati versus the Bengals, they looked anything but.
Denver was outplayed, out-toughed and out-coached in every way imaginable.
Offensively, the Broncos sputtered and looked out of rhythm for most of the night. The Bengals’ defense stood up to Peyton Manning and the rest of Denver’s offense and punched them right in the mouth.
Constant pressure on Manning, coupled with horrendous offensive line play, led to four turnovers, all interceptions by Manning. At some points Manning looked great, and at other times he looked absolutely awful. Unfortunately for Denver, he was the latter more often times than not.
Overall, the Broncos simply could not get it going on offense. The offensive line possibly played their worst game of the season and Denver’s special teams play was equally as bad, giving up big return after big return.
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Their defense didn’t fare much better and allowed rookie running back Jeremy Hill to run rampant over them to the tune of 147 yards, including an 85-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.
The defense did make some plays to help keep the Broncos in the game by forcing a couple of turnovers, and their coverage in the secondary was on point for the most part. It’s their run defense that was shockingly horrible and it was one of the main reasons that Denver lost the prime time matchup.
The Bengals were the better team Monday night and soundly beat the Broncos.
Hey, it’s just one game though. They’ll bounce back like they always do, right?
While it may just be one single game that really didn’t matter when it comes to playoff seeding for Denver, Monday night’s performance was still quite alarming for one reason and one reason only.
If/when the Broncos get the number two seed, securing a first-round bye in the playoffs, there’s a strong chance, especially at home, that they’ll defeat whoever has to travel to Mile High in the Divisional Round.
If that happens, you can be sure Tom Brady and the New England Patriots will be waiting for them in Foxborough licking their chops in the AFC Championship.
Now, the Patriots haven’t looked so hot as of late, either. Their close 17-16 victory over the New York Jets (now 3-12) wasn’t exactly awe-inspiring, but in any case they’ve locked up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The performance that was given on Monday night in Cincinnati will not cut it on the road against the Patriots. There will be no parade in downtown Denver if that’s the team that shows up in Foxborough or in the playoffs, as a whole.
Especially on the road in the Patriots own building, the game can get away from you in a hurry if teams start turning the ball over or don’t cover kickoffs or punt returns to the highest degree (see Week Nine vs. New England).
Star defensive end DeMarcus Ware commented on his team’s shoddy play after the crushing loss:
"“We have to go back to the drawing board… At the end of the day, we got to be able to close games better. There’s no excuses. We have to play better next week.”"
The Broncos certainly have the players and coaches to win it all at the end of the season. They dodged a bullet Monday night because the loss has no impact on Denver’s seeding as they’ll already likely end up with the second seed going into the playoffs.
This was about as close to a playoff game as you can possibly get and the Broncos completely flopped considering how they’ve been playing lately. Going forward, there can be no more duds or mental breakdowns with how competitive the AFC is. It is now firmly Super Bowl or bust for the Denver Broncos.
On the plus side, if Denver can actually secure the second seed, they’ll get roughly a two week rest before their next playoff game. It’s something they badly need, if not for the sake of rest and the healing of various injuries, then simply to just get it all mentally together before starting their second season.
All things considered, it really is just one incredibly hard fought game lost to an opponent that was fighting for their playoff lives.
Let’s just hope this one loss isn’t a sign of things to come when January rolls around.
Note: Denver’s starting safety T.J. Ward left in the fourth quarter of Monday night’s game with a neck injury. His MRI and X-Ray results both came back negative, and he is day-to-day with a neck strain. You can read more about it here.