Heading into Week 16 of the 2014 season, the Bengals were 9-4-1, needing a single win in their final two games to secure a playoff berth. But competition would be tough. Set to face the 11-3 Broncos at home and the 10-5 Steelers on the road in the season finale, Cincinnati's playoff odds seemed to be at an all-time low. In 2014, the Bengals were hardly known for their ability to beat good teams, as they'd only beaten one playoff team, the Baltimore Ravens, all season long.
Meanwhile, the Broncos entered the game on a four game winning streak. More impressive, every Broncos win on the season had come by a minimum of seven points. Facing two primetime games against heavily favored opponents, the Bengals only needed one game but that one game wouldn't be easy to win.
In Cincinnati for Monday Night Football against the Broncos, the Bengals received the opening kickoff, and the two teams traded punts. On the first play of the Bengals' second drive, Andy Dalton threw a brutal interception right to Aqib Talib, who returned the pick for a score.
An injury to A.J. Green that would prevent him from returning until late in the game was just salt in the wound. Facing a 7-0 deficit in primetime with zero momentum, things looked bad for the Bengals.
But one of the best plays of the Dalton era saved the team. On the Bengals' first play following the pick-six, rookie Jeremy Hill shocked everyone, ripping off a huge run that absolutely no one expected.
An 85-yard touchdown run out of shotgun would set the tone for the game and serve as a play with BeastQuake-esque ramifications for the Cincinnati Bengals. The rookie running back's run may not have been as jaw-dropping as Marshawn Lynch's original earthquake-causing run, but it showed the Cincinnati Bengals wouldn't quit in a game most people already considered over after the third drive.
Again, the two teams swapped punts until the Bengals drove down the field with a couple of nice Jeremy Hill runs, kicking a field goal to take a three-point lead.
On the second play of the Broncos' ensuing drive, the Bengals made another huge impact play that defined the game, coming in the form of a critical interception.
Reggie Nelson ripped the ball out of Demaryius Thomas' hands, forcing a turnover which would clearly rattle Peyton Manning. Paul Brown Stadium erupted with the interception, as the pick gave Cincinnati a huge chance to take a decisive two-possession lead early in the game.
Four plays later, the Bengals capitalized on that opportunity.
Cincinnati led all NFL teams on first-and-goal runs, so a play-action pass came at a huge surprise. Andy Dalton lobbed a pass to a wide open Jermaine Gresham, who came down with the pass and erupted the stadium with a game-changing touchdown. Suddenly, the Bengals held a 10-point lead in one of the biggest games of Andy Dalton's career.
The Broncos punted on their ensuing drive, and the Bengals scored yet again, taking a 20-7 lead. And when Connor Barth missed on a 49-yard field goal on the final play of the half, one thing was very clear: Cincinnati could--and should--win this game, locking up a playoff berth.
The Bengals didn't get off to a good start in the second half, allowing Omar Bolden to return Mike Nugent's kickoff for 77 yards.
Four plays later, Denver scored a touchdown on a one-yard run by C.J. Anderson. Suddenly, the Bengals were only up six points.
But alas, one of the team's most electric playmakers saw Bolden's brilliance and decided that the play needed to be one-upped.
From eight yards deep, Adam Jones returned Denver's kickoff 80 yards, putting his team in great field position. And of course, the Bengals made the most of what Jones gave them.
Three plays after Jones' incredible return, Dalton made a fantastic read on the Broncos' defense, delivering a huge statement in primetime. Despite many people expecting him to choke, Dalton delivered time and time again.
Converting a third down for just the second time of the evening, Dalton found Giovani Bernard in man coverage, who took a simple drag route for 22 yards and a score. While Bernard made a great play shedding a tackle, the read by Dalton was what made the play work. Paul Brown Stadium erupted with noise, as the Bengals still held a 13-point lead in the third quarter.
Peyton Manning, however, wouldn't quit either. He led his team on a 10-play, three minute drive, connecting with Emmanuel Sanders on a four-yard touchdown pass to bring Denver within six points.
Andy Dalton drove his team right back down the field, but an all-too-familiar error led to a critical turnover.
Moments before the snap, Jon Gruden noted that Hill was "shredding Denver" with some huge runs. But Hill's work on the drive was rendered meaningless, as the running back cost his team with a brutal turnover. It's also important to note that Gresham totally missed his block on Von Miller, who was the player to force the fumble. From there, it looked as though Denver would march right back down the field, take the lead and hold onto the game.
And of course, Denver did just as most thought, driving down the field. Peyton Manning found Emmanuel Sanders again, cashing in on a 5-yard touchdown pass to take the lead late in the third quarter.
Things looked like they were getting worse on Cincinnati's next drive, as Gresham fumbled the ball on Cincinnati's 48-yard-line. While the Bengals recovered the fumble, they were forced to punt. Again, the game looked out of reach, despite Cincinnati being down just one point.
But the tides turned again.
Prior to another interception, this time from Jones, Manning called out "24," indicating that he believed Jones would be blitzing on the play. Instead, the corner dropped back into coverage and made a huge interception. Paul Guenther's defense had Manning confused and rattled all night long, as Denver's audibles rarely caught the Bengals off-guard. In fact, Cincinnati's defensive audibles changed the momentum of the game, giving the team a huge shot at winning the game.
Jones and Nelson picked up a taunting penalty after the play, damaging the team's momentum and putting the offense in a bad spot. In fact, the penalty took Cincinnati out of field goal range.
And the Bengals offense couldn't capitalize, punting the ball back to Denver. Fortunately for the Bengals offense, however, Cincinnati's defense came up with a stop on the ensuing drive. And even better, Brandon Tate rejuvenated the team with a huge punt return, setting up the Bengals in great field position with a chance to take the lead.
Tate's return eventually set up a 23-yard field goal, and the Bengals suddenly held a two-point lead. The two teams traded punts, and the Broncos took over with just over four minutes left to play. If there was ever a time Peyton Manning would put together a decisive game-winning drive, it would be right then.
But unfortunately, things didn't go as the quarterback had planned.
Remember the Bengals' first play of the game? This one looked a lot like it. Manning decided to test Dre Kirkpatrick, who replaced starter Terence Newman, burned badly on a couple of big passes. Kirkpatrick snagged Manning's pass right out of the air, proceeding to take the interception to the house, securing a multiple-score lead.
From there, the game was over. Bengals and Broncos fans alike knew that the time remaining rendered meaningless, as Cincinnati's defense was just too much for the five-time MVP. If you don't believe me, here's photo evidence of Manning's disbelief.
Dre Kirkpatrick picked off Peyton Manning again on the next drive, officially ending the game. The Cincinnati Bengals, with a 37-28 victory, were headed to the playoffs.
Several things made this game great. Jeremy Hill's lights-out performance, highlighted by the incredible 85-yard run, was a momentum-changer for a team that essentially lost its best player at the start of the game. Hill totaled 147 rushing yards and a touchdown on the night. The Bengals were the first and only team to pick off three Manning passes in the 2014 season, and they picked off a fourth pass just for good measure. And with two interceptions on the night, Kirkpatrick looked like he was finally ready to replace Terence Newman as the Bengals' left corner. Dalton was efficient, but he outplayed Manning, tallying 146 yards passing, two touchdowns and an interception. Jones was also lights-out, making two game-changing plays. Even Tate chipped in with a huge punt return. The Bengals' victory over the Broncos was a team effort, and it essentially killed the primetime narrative that had haunted Cincinnati for so long.