As has been the case far too often, the Bengals were beaten in primetime in a game they should have won.
This time, it a was a 20-17 loss to a good Broncos team, but after Cincinnati built up a 14-0 lead and led 14-3 at halftime, they should have been able to close the deal.
Missed tackles, penalties and the offense going cold in frigid Mile High allowed Denver to get right back into the game. Adding injury to insult, the Bengals may now be without backup turned starting quarterback AJ McCarron, who injured his wrist on the game's final play while trying to recover a fumble he lost.
Chris Wesseling of NFL.com was very impressed with how well McCarron played in primetime against the NFL's best defense.
Despite the costly game-ending gaffe, McCarron has proven to be the ideal backup quarterback for the Bengals. He's cost-effective, ultra confident, takes command of the offense and manages the game while still pulling the trigger on aggressive downfield throws. Perhaps most impressively, McCarron made a series of perfect passes to convert third downs against the NFL's top-ranked defense. Although the Bengals receivers pulled off a few weeks' worth of highlight catches, A.J. Green just missed a pair of bombs that would have given the Bengals control of the game in the middle of the fourth quarter. Green fell silent down the stretch after winning versus Denver's cornerbacks early in the game.
As Peter King of the MMQB writes, losing McCarron is brutal after they've already lost Andy Dalton, whose return is now even more important.
In the scramble for that loose ball, McCarron injured his left wrist and will have an MRI on it today. If he’s OK, Cincinnati will have a chance in the playoffs—he had deft touch against pressing cornerbacks; seven times he completed sideline toe-tap routes to his big receivers. If he’s not, the next man up is Keith Wenning, a 2014 sixth-rounder who has never taken an NFL snap. Which brings us to …
• The fate of Andy Dalton. The loss makes it likely Cincinnati will be the third seed in the playoffs, and that the Jets or Steelers will play at Cincinnati in a Wild-Card game either 11 or 12 days from now. Dalton is wearing a black cast to protect the thumb he fractured on his right hand 16 days ago, and that weekend would be the absolute earliest he might play. Imagine a Steelers-Bengals rematch for a Wild-Card game. It’s not likely, but the possibility is tantalizing. The Jets would be just as hard to beat, if not more so, because of a surprisingly hot quarterback in Ryan Fitzpatrick and a stifling defensive front of their own.
Will Brinson of CBS Sports made sure to praise Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson for calling a great game, all things considered.
Hue Jackson is just showing off: It's hard to imagine the Bengals offensive coordinator not getting a couple long looks at being a head coach this offseason. The Bengals are loaded in terms of offensive talent, but he's getting production from multiple quarterbacks in Andy Dalton and AJ McCarron, with the latter doing it against one of the league's best defenses out of the gates.
The Bengals' opening drive was a 15-play march down the field, the longest scoring drive against the Broncos this season, chock full of aggressive plays designed to make McCarron look good and flash some fancy prime-time offensive stylings, including a speed-option play with McCarron and Jeremy Hill.
Mike Tanier of Bleacher Report also liked what he saw from the Bengals' offense, but only enough so that he gave Cincy a C grade for their Week 16 performance.
The Bengals mixed power running with sideline passes against one-on-one coverage, plus a sprinkle of Wildcat plays, to produce a pair of early touchdowns. The Broncos soon figured out the game plan, Bengals receivers couldn't make as many contested catches for AJ McCarron against tighter coverage, and the Bengals offense dried up almost completely.
Fellow B/R writer Chris Roling was not quite as big of a fan of the Bengals offense, especially how they appeared to turn conservative in the second half.
All the while, McCarron and Co. went vanilla and put the defense on the field more than it had been in the first half. The offensive line suddenly struggled to gain any traction, and the offense as a whole seemed to telegraph its every intention before the snap. Mostly gone were unbalanced lines, misdirections, screens and anything else to thwart Denver's halftime adjustments.
In reality, there's little explanation for the drastic change in offensive approach after the half other than somebody else took over the play-calling duties. Having a lead in Denver with a playoff bye on the line, something the team needs to get their starting quarterback back for the playoffs, doesn't excuse easing off.
Former Raiders executive and current CBS Sports analyst Amy Trask would love to see Jackson, a former Oakland assistant, become a head coach again.
If I owned an NFL team, I would trust Hue to coach it - if I had a son who played college football, I would trust Hue to coach him.— Amy Trask (@AmyTrask) December 29, 2015
But as Doug Farrar of SI.com wrote, Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips made the right halftime adjustments to stifle the Bengals' offense in the second half.
On defense, coordinator Wade Phillips dialed up more zone coverages, taking his secondary out of the risks of aggressive man coverage, and Denver was finally able to slow down the Bengals' passing offense. A Cincinnati ground game that put up 85 yards in the first half managed just 23 more yards in the second half and into overtime, and McCarron was grounded. He finished with 22 completions in 35 attempts for 200 yards and a touchdown, but just 81 yards came after the first half was done.
It's also worth noting that McCarron's game-changing fumble was actually a bit of karma. As SB Nation's Rodger Sherman wrote, McCarron actually had just fumbled the ball, but it was ruled that McCarron was attempting a forward pass, and thus was deemed an incomplete pass.
His arm was hit by Von Miller as he was throwing and the ball wobbled into the air, it fell, and was recovered a bit later by the Broncos. The refs ruled it an incomplete pass, but it's as close as you can get. His arm barely starts moving forward before the ball starts to wiggle loose. Had the refs made the right call? Were they cowering away from making a critical overturn on a decisive play? Were they trying to avoid ruling this a fumble and recovery because the Broncos hadn't recovered it "immediately" even though it looks like they would've recovered it anyway?
The Bengals and Broncos are both near the top of the AFC standings, but those who watched Monday's game probably didn't feel like they were watching NFL elite. The Patriots also lost this weekend, as did the Steelers, a surging team many thought might be rounding into Super Bowl form.
Even more good news: The sun shined today. It will also shine for at least two more weeks for the 2015 Bengals, and Carlos Dunlap knows there's still plenty of football to be played.
Yea it sucks, but it is what it is. We still hav everything we want infront of us. Learn from this. How Bad Do We Want It! #WhoDey— Carlos Dunlap (@Carlos_Dunlap) December 29, 2015