(Reuters) - The Cincinnati Bengals intercepted Peyton Manning four times to clinch a playoff berth with a big-play filled 37-28 victory over the Denver Broncos on Monday.
Playing in pouring rain, the Bengals staged a fourth-quarter recovery after blowing a 13-point lead to earn a fourth straight trip to the post-season.
“This one was big. We knew what we were up against... at home, playing on Monday Night in prime time,” Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton told reporters.
“Our defense played great, especially when it counted.”
Dre Kirkpatrick caught two interceptions for Cincinnati, who also enjoyed a big day on kick returns. The Bengals (10-4-1) can now seal the AFC North Division with a season-finale win against Pittsburgh next week.
Denver (11-4), who had already cinched the AFC West, was hoping to maintain their push to enter the playoffs as the conference top seed but the loss conceded the number one spot to the New England Patriots.
Manning threw for 311 yards but was unable to connect with his wide receivers when it mattered most.
“I had four interceptions, you’re not going to beat very many good football teams (that way),” Manning said. “We have to find a way to learn from this and play better next week.”
In a wild affair, the Broncos woke up in the second half, with Manning tossing two third-quarter touchdowns to give the visitors a 28-27 edge. Brandon Tate lifted the Bengals midway through the fourth with a 49-yard punt return that helped them move back in front on Mike Nugent’s 23-yard field goal.
The Cincinnati defense struck the decisive blow in the final minutes as Kirkpatrick intercepted Manning and returned it 30 yards to help push the Bengals nine points ahead of a demoralized Denver team.
Early on, it was the Cincinnati running game that led the way on a night where the Bengals lost standout wide receiver A.J. Green to an arm injury in the first quarter.
Jeremy Hill broke free for an 85-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, finishing with 147 yards on the night, and fellow back Giovani Bernard caught a 22-yard TD in the third to give the home side a 27-14 advantage.
The win was a big relief for the Bengals, who have a reputation for failing in big games and have not won in the playoffs since 1990.
“We understand that it was the elephant in the room; we heard it all week,” Hill said. “We knew tonight with the country watching that we had to show people we’re serious.”
Writing by Jahmal Corner in Los Angeles; Editing by John O'Brien