CINCINNATI — A desperate Cincinnati Bengals team broke a prolonged streak of bad luck and bad football in the second half Sunday, posting 17 unanswered points to climb out of a big hole and into the lead.
Just temporarily, of course.
The Bengals never beat Peyton Manning, and Manning used Sunday’s fourth quarter to make sure that streak continued. Manning led a touchdown drive to give the Denver Broncos the lead right back, then another to essentially put it away in the final four minutes as the Broncos won their third straight game, 31-23, and moved to 5-3.
Both by record and by performance, the Broncos are right in the thick of things in the AFC. The way Manning is going, they’ll probably stay there.
“He is special,” Broncos coach John Fox said. “He finished the race pretty well.”
Manning isn’t just back in the NFL after a year away. With 20 touchdown passes and over 2,400 yards at the midway point of the Broncos’ season, he’s back in the NFL MVP discussion.
Sunday’s comeback wasn’t as impressive as the Broncos coming back from 24-0 three weeks ago in San Diego, but it was an essential win. Manning was 27-of-35 passing for 291 yards and three touchdowns, coming nine yards short of tying Steve Young’s NFL record with five consecutive 300-yard, three-touchdown games.
Manning was intercepted twice in the third quarter but was perfect in the fourth quarter, six-for-six after his only pass that hit the ground was negated by a controversial pass interference call in the end zone on Adam Jones. Manning threw a touchdown pass to Joel Dreessen on the next play.
“Peyton is just a great competitor who’s going to keep fighting,” Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokely said. “That’s who he is, and this is what I’ve seen from him for 14 years. He’s a fun guy to play with.”
That 80-yard drive put the Broncos up by just four, at 24-20 with 11:47 left, but it knocked the wind out of the Bengals. Manning was somewhere between efficient and dominant for almost the first 40 minutes of the game before the interceptions, and he closed with a fury. When he threw his second touchdown pass of the day to Eric Decker with 3:36 to go, Manning moving to 8-0 all-time against the Bengals was all but ensured.
“You have to erase the (bad plays) from your mind,” Manning said. “Any time you’re on the road, you’d like to put a team away when you have the chance. Give credit to the Bengals for responding, but when we had to, our team responded as well.”
After the game, Manning downplayed talk of the Broncos being an elite team. He talked of relying on fundamentals in pressure-packed situations and putting in the necessary hours during the week to prepare for a tight finish. His look and demeanor, per usual, suggested that he’s just anxious to get on to the next challenge.
“We are just 5-3,” Manning said. “I think we’ve been practicing better, and that’s something we need to continue to do. I think this team needs to go through different scenarios. The more you go through them, the more you can draw from them late in the season.”
Manning speaks like a guy who’s been there before. He’s playing like one, too, with a completion percentage just a few decimals short of 70 and a locker room full of players who believe he’s keeping them in every game.
“Calm, confidence, poise,” Broncos veteran cornerback Champ Bailey said of Manning. “I don’t see many things shaking him. Even in the fourth quarter in Atlanta (in September), we almost came back and won that.