The Denver Broncos need to be worried, as their 37-28 loss didn’t just end their window of opportunity to get home field advantage in the playoffs, but it exposed Peyton Manning at his poorest form with too many interceptions and mistakes that aren’t usually associated with him. So bad it made Andy Dalton look like the best quarterback in the game.
Manning threw four interceptions including a pick six, a touchdown return by Dre Kirkpatrick which gave the Bengals a nine point lead with just under three minutes to go. It sealed the Bengals in the playoff, although things are still complicated in the AFC North (Steelers can still finish first in the division), and had to be more than pleased after another big game on the ground for Jeremy Hill, running for 147 yards on 22 carries, also scoring a touchdown.
Andy Dalton wasn’t great, but had only one interception. In the grand scheme of things, especially with Manning hitting Bengals defenders left and right, that’s not something to be angry about. He completed 17-of-26 passes for 146 yards, throwing a touchdown pass in the second quarter and in the third. The Bengals are doing everything they can to avoid relying on Dalton’s arm to win games. Despite his impressive regular season record, the Bengals still haven’t won a playoff game with him behind center, hoping they can change their fortunes with a different game plan this year.
Manning spoke about inconsistency between quarters in his performance after the game. That goes for him and the defense as well, but it’s mostly on him. The big advantage the Broncos got for themselves when he became a free agent all of a sudden after the 2011 season can’t all of a sudden shut down on them. We’ve seen in recent week how the Broncos have moved more and more towards running the ball, giving C.J. Anderson touches. At some point they’ll need Manning to wake up from his early winter slumber, and they need it to happen soon. At 11-4, they still don’t have the bye clinched.
Manning posted a 0.0 QBR in the 4th quarter. One can argue about the accuracy and legitimacy of the ESPN quarterback rating system, but some numbers don’t need explaining or a second glance. Manning threw three interceptions in the third quarter, including one that came when the game was all but lost. All three of his interceptions in the fourth quarter came when he was targeting Demaryius Thomas. In the last three games, Manning has just one touchdown to four interceptions when targeting receivers 15 yards down the field or more.
Andy Dalton wasn’t hitting his favorite target as well. He attempted four passes at A.J. Green, all of them incomplete on overthrows from Dalton. One of those interceptions turned into a pick six, returned for a touchdown by Aqib Talib during the first quarter. Dalton found success in this game, including his two touchdown passes, when he was moving outside of the pocket, connecting with Giovani Bernard and Jermaine Gresham.
Both teams have quarterback problems. For the Bengals, who keep on winning without actually impressing, it’s not exactly a surprise, despite Dalton being their choice to lead the franchise in the future. The Broncos find themselves in a weird situation they never imagined they’ll get to. While Cincinnati feel fine with taking the decisions out of Dalton’s hands and simply letting Hill and Bernard run it till the bitter end, the Broncos seem to be uncomfortable with becoming a run-first team.