With everything on the line, the Bengals picked off Peyton Manning in the closing minutes – twice, no less – and ran themselves right back into the playoffs.
One breakthrough win gave them a chance for another.
Dre Kirkpatrick returned Manning’s third interception of the game for a touchdown in the closing minutes on Monday night, completing a rain-soaked rally for a 37-28 victory over the Denver Broncos and a spot in the playoffs.
The Bengals (10-4-1) secured a playoff berth for the fourth consecutive season, a franchise record. They’ll play in Pittsburgh next Sunday night, with the winner taking the AFC North title.
And then, Cincinnati will get yet another chance to break one of the longest playoff droughts in NFL history – no postseason victory since the 1990 season. First, they go to Pittsburgh to determine when and where they’ll play.
”Well, we have another hump day next week,” coach Marvin Lewis said.
Kirkpatrick’s 30-yard return with 2:41 left capped a game of big plays – long runs, big kick returns and two interceptions run back for scores. With 67 seconds left, Kirkpatrick picked off Manning again to clinch it.
”I’m not saying I knew he was going to do that,” Kirkpatrick said. ”The guy changes plays. He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer. When he came back to my side, I was waiting for the ball.”
Manning rallied the Broncos (11-4) to three touchdowns in the third quarter and a lead, but finished with a season-high four interceptions. The loss handed New England home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
”I shouldn’t have thrown it,” said Manning, who was 28 of 44 for 311 yards with two touchdowns. ”Four interceptions, you’re not going to beat many good football teams.”
The AFC West champions failed in their attempt to clinch a first-round bye and came away with more questions about Manning, who was limited in practice during the week because of a strained right thigh.
Denver scored 21 points in the third quarter, with Manning throwing a pair of touchdowns to Emmanuel Sanders. With a chance to pull off his 51st game-winning drive in a heavy rain, Manning threw a sideline pass directly to Kirkpatrick, who ran it back untouched.
Manning had been 8-0 career against the Bengals with 20 touchdown passes and only five interceptions. He nearly matched that total in one game.
Demaryius Thomas had seven catches for 115 yards, setting a club record with his ninth 100-yard game of the season.
Andy Dalton settled down after a huge early mistake – an overthrown pass that Aqib Talib returned for a touchdown – and rookie Jeremy Hill led a dominating running game that finished with 207 yards overall. Hill had an 85-yard touchdown run with 147 overall, going over 1,000 for the season.
Hill played a starring role in the Bengals’ playoff drive.
”I know a lot of guys are never fortunate enough to make the playoffs,” said Hill, a second-round pick from LSU. ”In college, I wanted to play for a national championship but never got the chance.”
The Monday night win was a breakthrough for the Bengals, who had been blown out in their two prime-time games this season and came in 18-41 all-time at night. They have one more left in Pittsburgh next Sunday.
The dominant running game immensely helped Dalton, who is 3-6 all-time in prime time. He started badly again on Monday, overthrowing A.J. Green for an interception that Talib returned 33 yards for a touchdown. Dalton finished 17 of 26 for 146 yards with two touchdowns and the one interception.
”You can’t let one bad play hurt you more than just that one bad play,” Dalton said.
Green was hit in the right upper arm on the interception and was in and out of the game the rest of the way. He was held without a catch for only the second time in his career.
NOTES: Broncos safety T.J. Ward left in the fourth quarter with a neck injury. He’ll be reevaluated in Denver. … C.J. Anderson ran for 83 yards, also putting him over 1,000 for the season. … Thomas joined Marvin Harrison and Jerry Rice as the only players with three straight seasons of 1,400 yards receiving and 10 touchdown catches. … Eric Winston made his first start at right tackle for the Bengals, who signed him Dec. 2. … Hill is the third rookie in NFL history with four games of at least 140 yards rushing, joining Eric Dickerson (1983) and Curtis Martin (1995), according to STATS