DENVER (AP) — DeMarcus Ware came up with the big play he’s been looking for ever since missing a month with a bad back, and it put the Denver Broncos into the playoffs.
Ware beat AJ McCarron to a fumbled snap in overtime, sending the Broncos into the postseason with a 20-17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday night.
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.
The Broncos (11-4) overcame a 14-0 first-half deficit in clinching their fifth consecutive playoff berth 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.”
Cincinnati also blew a chance to earn a bye in the playoffs.
Denver can earn the top seed in the AFC with a win over San Diego and a loss by New England at Miami next weekend.
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.
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 and 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. Both Emmanuel Sanders and Owen Daniels limped off during the drive.
Osweiler, making his sixth straight start in place of Peyton Manning, also banged an elbow in the frenetic final minutes but stayed in.
McManus then redeemed himself by splitting the uprights from 37 yards out 5 minutes into the extra period.
Then, it was up to the league’s best defense to seal the deal.
There was an incompletion on first down that the Broncos felt should have been a fumble by McCarron with Derek Wolfe recovering the ball as it skittered downfield, but a review upheld the ruling.
Second-and-10 from the Bengals 33.
Center Russell Bodine’s shotgun snap sailed past McCarron, making his second start in place of Andy Dalton, and Ware beat him to the loose football at the 23.
McCarron had driven 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 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.
Despite allowing three sacks by Carlos Dunlap, the Broncos got things going on offense, and their defense buckled down despite losing leading tackler Brandon Marshall to an ankle injury and safety T.J. Ward to another sprained ankle.
Osweiler, who threw for 299 yards, connected with Sanders on a short TD throw for Denver’s first third-quarter points since Nov. 8 at Indianapolis, making it 14-10.
C.J. Anderson gave the Broncos their first lead when he broke free for a 39-yard touchdown run with 11:17 remaining.
McCarron completed passes of 20 and 13 yards on third down on Cincinnati’s subsequent drive, which ended with Mike Nugent’s 52-yard field goal that tied it with 6:45 remaining.
The Broncos twice drove deep into Cincinnati territory in the final minutes of regulation only to come away empty.
Anderson fumbled and safety Reggie Nelson recovered at the Bengals 26 with four minutes left. Denver’s defense held and the Broncos offense got the ball back at their 20 with 1:40 remaining. They reached the Bengals 24 before McManus missed, sending it into overtime.
The game played out just as expected on a frigid night.
Cincinnati came in allowing the fewest points in the league and Denver the fewest yards. This was only the third time two teams have met in December with those stats.
It was 16 degrees at kickoff and 14 degrees and dipping by the second half.