DeMarcus Ware put the clamps on the loose football and punched Denver’s ticket to the playoffs.
"The ball was on the ground and I was feeling like, `There’s no way somebody’s going to take this ball from me,’" Ware said after his fumble recovery in overtime sealed Denver’s 20-17 victory over Cincinnati on Monday night.
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Russell Bodine’s catchable shotgun snap eluded AJ McCarron, who was making his second start in place of Andy Dalton. He raced to recover it, but Ware swept past right tackle Andrew Smith and secured Denver’s fifth consecutive trip to the postseason.
"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."
McCarron also hurt his left wrist on the play and wrapped it afterward. He said he wasn’t sure how bad it’s hurt, but "I’ll get it checked out tomorrow and we’ll see."
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, helping the Broncos (11-4) overcome a 14-0 first-half deficit and denying the Bengals (11-4) their first road win on a Monday night since 1990.
"There’s an old saying: `It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,’" Broncos quarterback Brock Osweiler said. "And this team finished great tonight."
The Bengals blew a chance to earn a bye in the playoffs and move ahead of the New England Patriots in the race for the AFC’s top seed.
"We knew what we have in front of us, an opportunity to get the bye," said Carlos Dunlap, who collected all three sacks of Osweiler. "It is what it is now. Now we’re going to move on."
Denver, which was in danger of becoming the first team since the 1970 merger to miss the playoffs after starting 10-2, snapped a two-game skid with its third overtime win of the season.
Now, the Broncos can earn the top seed in the AFC with a win over San Diego and a loss by New England at Miami next weekend.
"We’ve won in a lot of ways this year," Broncos safety T.J. Ward said. "Overtime, game-winning field goals, blocked field goals, strips, fumble recoveries. When you get down to the playoffs you’re going to need all those type of wins."
McManus has missed a kick in five consecutive games, and this one wasn’t even close. It sailed wide left — missing the protective netting — to the astonishment of 74,511 fans even though the flags atop the goal posts revealed a complete lack of wind.
The relieved Bengals called tails but the coin landed heads.
Unlike Patriots coach Bill Belichick a day earlier, Broncos coach Gary Kubiak chose to receive, and Denver drove 60 yards in 13 plays. Osweiler, making his sixth straight start in place of Peyton Manning, played with a sore left shoulder and banged his left elbow in the frenetic final minutes but stayed in.
"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.
McCarron drove the Bengals on two long first-half drives, covering 80 and 90 yards and eating up a total of 16:24 to put Cincinnati ahead 14-0. He threw a 5-yard TD pass to A.J. Green and Mohamed Sanu scooted in from 6 yards out on a direct snap.
After that, he found it tough to sustain drives against Denver’s defense, which is ranked No. 1 against both the run and the pass and held McCarron to 200 yards passing and the Bengals to 3.3 yards a carry.
The Broncos pulled to 14-3 at halftime on McManus’ short field goal, and the Broncos came out in hurry-up mode and were a different team in the second half — a reversal of last week at Pittsburgh, where they jumped out to a 17-point lead but were outscored 24-0 after the break.
Osweiler connected with Sanders on a short TD throw for Denver’s first third-quarter points since Nov. 8 at Indianapolis, and C.J. Anderson gave the Broncos their first lead when he broke free for a 39-yard touchdown run with 11:17 remaining.
After Mike Nugent’s 52-yard field goal tied it with 6:45 remaining, the Broncos twice drove to the Bengals 26 only to come away empty, once on Anderson’s fumble and then on McManus’ miss.
"We told him if you get another chance take advantage of it and he did," Demaryius Thomas said. "That’s what won the game."
That, and Ware’s huge play moments later.
Notes:Cincinnati came in allowing the fewest points in the NFL and Denver the fewest yards. This was only the third time two teams have met in December with those stats. … Notable injuries were to Bengals TE Ryan Hewitt (knee) and Broncos leading tackler Brandon Marshall (ankle).