The weather was miserably cold. The stakes were as high as could be. The lights were bright and the fans were loud. Above all else, the football on Monday night between the Denver Broncos and Cincinnati Bengals was exciting, intense, and full of passion. As a result, Week 16 of the 2015 NFL regular season couldn’t have concluded with a better finish. Playoff positioning was on the line in the Mile High City for two teams with Super Bowl aspirations. In overtime, the home team managed to secure a clutch victory, 20-17. Here are some key insights into how this game’s outcome affects things moving forward.
3. Solid as Brock
Brock Osweiler received plenty of criticism — whether he deserved it or not — for the Broncos’ recent two-game skid, which saw them on the brink of missing the postseason. When you look at the situation as a whole though, Osweiler hasn’t been the biggest concern for Denver. Since taking over for the injured Peyton Manning, the fourth-year pro and first-time starter has thrown for 1,436 yards and 8 touchdowns, leading the Broncos to a 4-2 record.
On Monday night, Osweiler was especially good. He completed an efficient 69.2% of his passes against the Bengals and had nearly 300 yards in the game (299) to go along with his touchdown pass to Emmanuel Sanders in the third quarter. He also celebrated his second game with a passer rating over 100. It’s clear that the Broncos want a healthy Manning back on the field. In the meantime though, they could do a lot worse than Osweiler, who essentially led two game-winning drives this game (one in regulation resulted in terrible kick and one in overtime resulted in the completed kick, both by Brandon McManus).
2. McCarron is decent, just inexperienced
This matchup, which was highly anticipated all season long, was supposed to pit Manning against Andy Dalton. Instead, injuries created a quarterback matchup that nobody could’ve seen coming a month ago. Yes, Osweiler versus A.J. McCarron may have removed some of the hype from this game, but it didn’t show in the product. Only in his second career start, McCarron drove the Bengals down the field on their first possession, tossing a touchdown to A.J. Green.
McCarron was also integral on the drive that saw Cincinnati take a two-touchdown lead, creating a hole for the Broncos. After that drive though, things got a lot tougher for the second-year pro. Going up against the vaunted Broncos’ defense, McCarron and his offensive unit managed to put up only 3 points in the second half, constantly facing pressure and great coverage by Denver’s secondary.
Once the Broncos took away the running game after halftime, McCarron had no chance. The young signal caller faced a huge task in this one and played about as well as he could, but it wasn’t enough in the end. Of course, the game concluded on the bad snap during the Bengals’ overtime possession. Part of the reason that ball was fumbled was because of McCarron’s inexperience. Cincinnati has a solid backup QB, but they need Dalton to get healthy if they want to make a run in the playoffs.
In the end, Denver’s defense prevails
For most of the season, Denver’s defense has been the best in the league. They’ve come up with numerous big plays to win several games for the Broncos, striking fear into opposing offenses on a regular basis. After getting a little exposed by the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 15, the unit needed a bounce-back performance. While it didn’t start out great against the Bengals, Denver’s defense rose to the occasion once again.
They allowed McCarron and the Bengals to drive down the field on their first two possessions of the game, which put the Broncos in a hole. After that though, Denver’s defense was as good as fans could have hoped. Derek Wolfe and Von Miller generated a bunch of pressure in the second half, while Aqib Talib and Chris Harris shut down the Bengals’ receivers. They held Cincinnati to just three points after halftime and allowed their offense to make the necessary plays to get back in the game.
Then, after the Broncos kicked the go-ahead field goal in overtime, it was their defense that secured yet another win, this time resulting in a playoff berth. DeMarcus Ware fell on the muffed snap by the Bengals to secure the victory. We’ve come to expect this unit to make the big play, whether it’s a clutch three-and-out or a takeaway. If they are on their A-game, there is no doubt that the Broncos can make a Super Bowl run.
Bonus: What the result means for the playoffs
With the win, the Denver Broncos leapt over the Bengals into the No. 2 spot in the AFC playoff picture. They will clinch the spot with a win or a Bengals loss in Week 17. Denver also needs a win or a Kansas City loss to clinch the AFC West. Furthermore, if Denver wins and New England loses next weekend, the Broncos will claim the No. 1 seed in the AFC, giving them home-field advantage throughout the tournament.
The Bengals now need to win and see a Broncos loss in Week 17 to receive a first-round bye (they’ve already clinched the AFC North). This game also affected the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans in the AFC South race. Denver’s win kept the Colts’ very slim playoff hopes alive. There is still a lot to decide in the final week of the season, so time will only tell how everything pans out.