DENVER (AP) — One errant shotgun snap sent the fortunes of the Denver Broncos and Cincinnati Bengals in different directions.
AJ McCarron took his eyes off his center for a split-second to look at the coverage and both the snap and Cincinnati’s surest path to a first-round bye slipped away — along with a chance to earn the AFC’s top seed next week.
DeMarcus Ware secured both the fumble and Denver’s ticket to the playoffs, clamping down on the loose football 6 minutes into overtime and sealing Denver’s 20-17 win Monday night.
“It was my fault. I told the team that,” McCarron said. “I looked up to see the coverage and the snap caught me by surprise.”
This was just the big play Ware’s been looking for ever since missing a month with a bad back.
“Felt great to finish the game that way,” Ware said. “We thought we were going to finish it with the field goal but at the end of the game, it’s all about that win.”
Ware’s recovery followed a 37-yard field goal by Brandon McManus, whose shanked 45-yarder at the end of regulation made necessary the extra drama.
“I’m 24 years old and I don’t think I’ve ever kicked the ball like that in my life: grade school, elementary school or anything like that,” McManus said. “I just wrapped my toe around it and I knew I had to bounce back.”
He did, and Ware’s follow-up capped Denver’s second comeback from a 14-0 deficit at home this season. The Broncos (11-4) also beat New England in overtime last month after spotting the Patriots a two-touchdown lead in the first half.
Denver’s comeback denied the Bengals (11-4) their first road win on a Monday night in a quarter century.
The Broncos now can secure the AFC’s top seed next week with a win over San Diego and a Patriots’ loss at Miami.
“First off, getting into the playoffs in the National Football League is a hell of an accomplishment. It’s hard to do,” Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said. “Once you get there, it’s about how you play, not really where you play, but … we’ve got a great opportunity this weekend.
“It’s going to be a very quick turnaround after a five-quarter football game. It’s going to be very tough on us physically. I’ve got to get them ready to go, but they understand that. They didn’t want a lot of atta-boy’s tonight. They’re ready to go to work next week. I could feel that already.”
Other takeaways from the final Monday night game of the season:
BANGED-UP BACKUPS: The battle of backup quarterbacks took its toll on Brock Osweiler and McCarron. Osweiler, making his sixth straight start in place of Peyton Manning (foot), came in with a sore left shoulder and left with a sore left elbow. McCarron, making his second consecutive start in place of Andy Dalton (thumb), injured his left wrist on the final scramble and had it wrapped afterward.
“I was diving for the football and it just happened,” McCarron said, adding he wasn’t sure how bad it was hurt. “I don’t know. I’ll get it checked out tomorrow and we’ll see.”
Osweiler hurt his elbow on one of Carlos Dunlap’s three sacks.
“Coming into the game, I was a little bit banged up. Coming out of the game I’m a little bit banged up. But that’s football,” said Osweiler, who will get the start against the Chargers next week, too.
BOGGED DOWN: After piling up 205 yards on their first three drives — including 170 on their first two possessions — the Bengals managed just 89 yards the rest of the way.
“This one definitely hurts, when you feel like you have a lot of momentum and doing some good things out there and kind of spit out the bit in the second half,” running back Jeremy Hill said. “There’s a lot of things we wish we could’ve had back. But we’ll leave that out there on the field.”
DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS: Both the Bengals and Broncos have that one ingredient teams covet in the playoffs: a stout defense. The Broncos yield the fewest yards in the league — they’re ranked No. 1 against both the run and the pass — and the Bengals allow the fewest points (263).
This game marked only the third time two teams have met in December with those stats.
ROAD WOES: Cincinnati fell to 3-17 on the road on Monday nights. Their last such win came at Cleveland during the 1990 season, which was also the last time the Bengals won a playoff game. They’ve never won a playoff game on the road in 13 tries. Their loss in Denver also prevented them from going 7-1 on the road, which would have been the team’s best mark in its 48-year history.
REF’S ROUGH NIGHT: This wasn’t nearly as bad as Ed Hochuli’s blown call on Jay Cutler’s last-minute fumble against San Diego in 2008. But the buff referee had a tough night in Denver. He began by identifying the Broncos as the Bengals when Denver won the opening coin toss. He left his microphone on in the closing minutes of regulation like in a State Farm commercial and twice had to pick up flags thrown even though the Bengals had declared an extra lineman as an eligible receiver and it had been announced.
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