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Broncos clinch playoff berth with OT win over Bengals

DeMarcus Ware recovered a mishandled snap from AJ McCarron in overtime, sending the Denver Broncos (11-4) to the postseason with a 20-17 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals (11-4) on Monday night. Here's what you need to know:

  1. The Broncos' victory not only catapults them into the playoffs, but also moves them past the Bengals into the No. 2 spot in the AFC playoff picture. Denver needs to beat the Chargers in Week 17 to secure the first-round bye and keep Cincinnati in the No. 3 seed. Monday's result also means the Chiefs remain in the No. 5 seed and the Coltsstill need a miracle to overtake the Texans in the AFC South race.
  1. NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reported earlier Monday that there is "no chance" Peyton Manning will reclaim the Broncos' starting job if Brock Osweiler plays well in a Denver victory over the Bengals. In that case, Osweiler overcame a slow start to pass the test with a strong enough performance in the second half and overtime. He stood tall in the pocket and threaded the needle with pinpoint passes to Owen Daniels and Bennie Fowler late in the fourth quarter, setting up Brandon McManus for a winning field-goal attempt that was promptly shanked wide left as time expired. Osweiler shook off that missed opportunity and led the Broncos on a 14-play drive that ended in a 37-yard field goal from McManus. After the game, coach Gary Kubiak complimented his decision-making and poise, labeling the late-game effort "extremely impressive."
  1. 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.

The Bengals don't expect Andy Dalton back until the Divisional Round of the playoffs, per Rapoport, which means McCarron would start at least one postseason game, barring a Broncos faceplant in Week 17. Even with the overtime loss, teammates and coaches have to be feeling confident in their backup quarterback.

  1. This clash of AFC powers featured a intriguing chess match between two of the NFL's most respected coordinators. A prospective head-coaching candidate, Bengals offensive boss Hue Jackson should ditch the Belichick-style binder and walk into his next interview with film of the first 20 minutes of this game. Credit Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, though, for the halftime adjustment to a zone defense that stifled McCarron as well as Cincinnati's ground attack for the majority of the second half. Once the crowd got back into the festivities with an Osweiler touchdown drive early in the third quarter, Denver's defense swarmed to the ball the rest of the way.
  1. Broncos tackle Michael Schofield struggled to block Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who generated three sacks and came one yard short of a fourth. Dunlap is up to 13.5 sacks, breaking Eddie Edwards' longstanding single-season franchise record of 13. Coy Bacon has the unofficial record with 21.5 sacks in 1976, seven years before the sack became an NFL statistic.
  1. This was a hard-hitting clash between two of the NFL's stingiest defenses. All-Pro safety Reggie Nelson kept Daniels from scoring the winning touchdown with a clean but vicious hit at the goal line. Defensive end Michael Johnson also struck C.J. Anderson to force a fumble that was recovered by Nelson with four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. On balance, though, Anderson was the best back in the game, shifting momentum with a tackle-breaking 39-yard touchdown run reminiscent of the game-winner that knocked the Patriots from the ranks of the undefeated last month. When he's not banged up, Anderson has played as well as any AFC running back since midseason.
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