After a tough loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on the road in Week 2, the Bengals are returning home to Cincinnati to host the Denver Broncos. It will be their third critical conference matchup in the first three games of the season, this time against the defending Super Bowl champions.
In recent years, wins simply have not come easy for either team. Granted, the Broncos have won most matchups of the Marvin Lewis era by an impressive 6-2 record. But, only the first of those games, in Week 1 of Lewis’ first season as head coach (2003), resulted in a Broncos win of 10 points or more.
It was a 30-10 dominant performance for the Broncos in which Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna (20-37, 264 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions) looked like a legendary quarterback by comparison to the Broncos’ Jake Plummer (12-25, 115 yards, zero touchdowns, three interceptions). However, the Bengals had absolutely no answer for Broncos running back Clinton Portis, who exploded for 120 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries. By comparison, Bengals running back Corey Dillon only managed 34 yards on 14 carries.
The Bengals and Broncos did meet up again the following year for a game that ended in more than a 10 point difference. But, this time, it was the Bengals putting on the dominating performance as new quarterback Carson Palmer threw 12 completions on 21 attempts for 198 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. To be fair, Plummer’s stats were mostly comparable to Palmer’s in that game. But, he threw two interceptions that set up scoring drives by the Bengals.
More recently, virtually every game between the two teams have come down to the wire. In 2009, the Bengals and Broncos put together an extremely defense-driven game. The Broncos led for most of the game with a pair of field goals. But, a touchdown run for Cedric Benson with 38 seconds left in the game put the Bengals up by a score of 7-6. It looked like the Bengals had pulled the win out in the ugliest fashion possible. But, with only 11 seconds left, Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton attempted one last desperate hail mary pass to Broncos star wide receiver Brandon Marshall. The pass was tipped by Bengals cornerback Leon Hall and Marshall was unable to come down with it. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Broncos receiver Brandon Stokley caught the errant pass and broke out for an 87 yard touchdown run that ate up all of the remaining time in the game.
It was the opening game of both teams’ 2009 season. Ultimately, it didn’t really have much effect on the rest of the season as the Bengals ended up 10-6 and on top of an unusually weak AFC North. On the flip side, the Broncos ended up 8-8 and missed the playoffs entirely. The only difference a win for the Bengals would have made is they would have beaten the New England Patriots out for the No. 3 seed and would have hosted the Baltimore Ravens in the Wild Card round of the playoffs rather than the New York Jets. Still, the memory of Stokley’s catch burned into the minds of many Bengals fans who couldn’t believe what they had just witnessed.
Both of the Bengals’ next two games against the Broncos in 2012 and 2014 resulted in fourth quarter comebacks for the Bengals. It was particularly interesting in 2014 because, despite holding a lead for the majority of the game, the Bengals allowed the Broncos to take the lead late in the third quarter. But, a field goal drive in the middle of the fourth quarter put them ahead. A pick six on the legendary Peyton Manning by Dre Kirkpatrick with 2:41 left in the game all but sealed the win.
We all remember what happened last year. In the absence of one of the most effective quarterbacks of the 2015 season, Andy Dalton, the Bengals were starting AJ McCarron at quarterback. This time, the Bengals were the victims of a vicious second half comeback, despite leading the game 14-3 at halftime. The Bengals’ offense completely disappeared in the second half. The previously stout defense allowed the Broncos to put together 14 points to take the lead early in the fourth quarter.
The Bengals had to settle for forcing overtime with a Mike Nugent field goal in the middle of the fourth quarter, playing stout defense the rest of the way. The Bengals’ defense bent but didn’t break on the opening drive of overtime, allowing a field goal that put the Broncos up by three. Two plays into the Bengals’ drive in which their two choices were: score or lose, center Russell Bodine sent a bad snap toward McCarron, who fumbled the bad snap, while also getting distracted, looking at A.J. Green. Broncos defensive end DeMarcus Ware recovered the loose ball, sealing the win for the Broncos.
Had the Bengals managed to score even one more point by the end of regulation, they would have won and secured the AFC’s No. 1 seed at the end of the season. They would have skipped the first round of the playoffs entirely and likely would have hosted the Broncos again in the divisional round. That is due to the fact that the Broncos would have lost the AFC West division crown to the Kansas City Chiefs, but would have probably beaten the No. 4 seeded Houston Texans in the Wild Card round.
Unfortunately, that’s not how it played out, and we all remember what happened to the Bengals in the playoffs. The Broncos, on the other hand, went on to win the Super Bowl. Funny how that works.
With a healthy Andy Dalton and a restocked arsenal of dynamic weapons at his disposal, the Bengals will be hoping for a different result this week. If this one ends up like the other matchups of the past decade or so, it should be one of the most heart-pounding games of the 2016 NFL season.