For the Bengals, a first-round bye and a shot at the AFC's No. 1 seed was on the line. For Denver, it was also a bye week in addition to the AFC West title and even just a playoff berth.
Unfortunately, the Bengals would not come out on top as Denver rallied for a 20-17 win in overtime. It was a tough one to stomach as Cincinnati blew a 14-0 lead, and it may cost them dearly in the long run.
Here's a look at this week's Bengals winners and losers.
Whenever Carlos Dunlap realized he got to face Michael Schofield, he probably started salivating right then and there. A major liability at right tackle for Denver, Schofield allowed four sacks to Oakland's Khalil Mack just two weeks ago while being just bad in general this season.
Dunlap may not be at the same level of Mack, but he's not far behind either. Coming into this game, Dunlap led the Bengals with 10.5 sacks, and he did his best to make sure he ends the season with the team lead. He was a force in the first half while sacking Brock Osweiler twice.
Carlos Dunlap with the sack on second down... https://t.co/2pmXW8ErjL— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) December 29, 2015
Dunlap would get his third in the third quarter and set the Bengals franchise record with 13.5 sacks in a season. The record was set previously by Eddie Edwards with 13 in 1983, though the unofficial mark is held by Coy Bacon at 22 in 1976, before the stat was officially tracked.
Still, Dunlap has now put himself in the truly elite company in Bengals franchise history when it comes to rushing the passer while also becoming one of the better sack artists in the game today.
In any sport, a team's best players must step up in their biggest moments in order to win big. That was the case Monday night as the Bengals needed their best offensive player to come up big in the worst way. In addition to Dalton and Eifert being sidelined, the Bengals were going against the NFL's top rushing, passing and overall defense.
But Green is an elite player who should be able to make plays against even a defense this good, and boy did he ever. His first big play was a 17-yard grab on the first drive to put the Bengals in scoring position.
Brilliant catch and throw from McCarron to Green. https://t.co/REzK6nX1mf— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) December 29, 2015
Green would cap off the drive with a magnificent touchdown grab over Aqib Talib while keeping both feet in bounds.
TOUCHDOWN!!!! McCarron to Green. Amazing. https://t.co/VAttzX5V3i— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) December 29, 2015
Green's big performance helped the Bengals jump out to a 14-0 lead as they appeared to take control of this game early. He's routinely thrown up duds in primetime games, but he did his best to prevent that this time around.
The Bengals would have little-to-no shot at winning this game if they had been playing with most of the league's backup quarterbacks in this game, but AJ McCarron continues to show us he's no ordinary backup. He made big throw after big throw in this game and gave the Bengals a chance to win in Denver, something that's no easy feat.
McCarron looked like a seasoned veteran against one of the league's best defenses and until overtime, he didn't look lkke someone who just became a starting quarterback in the NFL. For now, McCarron is just trying to get the Bengals wins and in the best playoff shape they can be in.
While his receivers made a number of tough grabs in this game, McCarron consistently did what was needed of him while also making several unexpected good plays. Unfortunately, the last play of the game cost the Bengals as McCarron fumbled the ball away to end the game.
With Tyler Eifert still out due to a concussion, this was a great chance for Ryan Hewitt to continue showing he's a viable pass-catcher in this offense in addition to being a solid blocker when lined up at fullback. That wouldn't happen though as Hewitt went down with a knee injury on the game's opening drive, and was eventually ruled out for the rest of the game.
If you would have told me the Bengals would hold a 14-3 lead at halftime of this game and the offense wouldn't turn the ball over the whole game until late in overtime, I would have thought they'd win for sure. This defense against that Denver offense...forget about it...right?
Not exactly. The defense had several breakdowns in the second half and allowed Denver to storm back. The primary culprits were missed tackles as the Broncos had several big runs that were the result of missed tackles. That included the 39-yard scoring run C.J. Anderson had in the fourth quarter.
Broncos take 17-14 lead on this CJ Anderson TD run. https://t.co/1lBdfUMi39— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) December 29, 2015
While the Bengals' second-half collapse was a team effort, the defense deserves the brunt of the blame, especially with how well they've been in this area in 2015.
Reports surfaced before the game that Andy Dalton's recovery from a broken thumb likely puts his return after the first round of the playoffs. With this loss, the Bengals likely won't have a bye and will likely open the postseason in the Wild Card round. That means McCarron will likely be getting the start, and the possibility Dalton doesn't play another snap this season becomes even more possible.
As great of a season as Dalton was having, few will remember it if the last image of him for the season is walking off the field with a broken thumb a month before the playoffs even began.