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Brock Osweiler keeps composure in Broncos' comeback win

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DENVER -- He poked at his kale and arugula salad, mining for dried cranberries and searching for answers. Hue Jackson, the Cincinnati Bengals' innovative offensive coordinator, knew his untested, fill-in quarterback would face a stern test against a menacing Denver Broncos defense Monday night. And with so much at stake for both teams, there was no mistaking young AJ McCarron's mandate.

"I'm going to give him an opportunity to make some plays downfield, to get the ball in the hands of our playmakers," Jackson said of McCarron, a second-year passer who seven hours later would make his second career start in place of the injured Andy Dalton. "He has to hit those, and his teammates have to help him -- but he can't be careless with the football, because they're damn good.

"I think our defense can probably hold their offense to 17, but we've got to find a way to score more than 17. And we can't give them any free points -- no forcing throws, and no turning it over. If we can keep it clean, we've got a chance to do something special -- and to buy Andy another week to get healthy."

As it turned out, McCarron would faithfully execute Jackson's plan of action, until his fumbled shotgun snap with 9:48 remaining in overtime brought a sudden end to a tense, contentious battle between Super Bowl contenders in front of 76,868 human popsicles at Sports Authority Field. With the Broncos and their own newbie starting quarterback, Brock Osweiler, prevailing by a 20-17 score, the AFC playoff picture had a bit more clarity, and Monday night's Mile High Melee served as a rollicking, high-def preview.

"It felt like a playoff game to me," said Aqib Talib, one of the Broncos' two Pro Bowl cornerbacks. "That's probably as close as it gets to the playoffs without actually being the playoffs. They wanted it badly. And we needed it."

While the Bengals (11-4) had clinched the AFC North the previous day when the Pittsburgh Steelers suffered an upset defeat to the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati could have locked up a first-round bye -- and stayed in contention for the AFC's No. 1 overall seed -- with a victory. That loomed especially large given the potential timing of Dalton's recovery from a broken thumb on his throwing hand; a Bengals source said the hope is that Dalton will have his cast removed Tuesday and that he can return for the divisional round during the weekend of Jan. 16-17.

The Broncos (11-4), meanwhile, entered the game in the unusual position of contending for the conference's top seed while also confronting the possibility of missing the playoffs altogether.

"I've never seen that scenario before this late in a season," said 11th-year outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, who fell on McCarron's fumble to clinch the victory. "It's your second-to-last game, and you have so much to gain and so much to lose."

Added safety T.J. Ward: "That's a very far and wide spectrum, right? That was the leading conversation before the game: 'We're not in the playoffs, yet.' "

They are now: The victory clinched a postseason berth for the Broncos, who thus joined the Bengals, New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers as the only teams to reach the playoffs in each of the last five years. Denver, with the Kansas City Chiefs (10-5) still in hot pursuit in the AFC West, still has plenty of variability: It could be seeded first, second, third, fifth or sixth, though a victory against the San Diego Chargers at Sports Authority Field on Sunday would clinch a first-round bye.

The Bengals, who host the Ravens on Sunday, could swoop in and seize the No. 2 seed with a victory and a Broncos defeat; otherwise, Cincinnati will host a first-round game as the No. 3 seed, almost certainly with McCarron playing the most important position on the field.

If the guy who ran the offense in the first half of Monday's game shows up, the Bengals will be in very good hands. With a masterful game plan that mixed a physical running attack with a multi-faceted passing attack, and which featured Jackson's usual dizzying array of formations and pre-snap shifts, McCarron smoothly navigated his way through the normally daunting Denver defense for the first 30 minutes.

Cincinnati started the game with a 15-play, 80-yard drive that ended with McCarron's 5-yard right-corner fade to star wideout A.J. Green, who deftly hauled it in despite Talib's tight coverage. (Talib later said he "lost it in the lights.") The Bengals followed with a 13-play, 90-yard march that ended with wideout Mohamed Sanu taking a direct shotgun snap and scampering 6 yards to the left pylon for a 14-0 lead.

After another Broncos punt, McCarron (22 of 35, 200 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions) marched Cincy to the Denver 26 -- at which point he had converted all seven of his third-down opportunities. However, after he misconnected with wideout Marvin Jones on third-and-11, Mike Nugent missed a 45-yard field goal with 2:26 remaining in the first half, and Osweiler took advantage of the short field to set up a Brandon McManus 23-yarder just before halftime.

As they trudged into the locker room to thaw out, the Broncos' proud defenders were surly and stressed.

"We came out a little flat -- I don't know why," Ward said afterward. "We knew that first half was BS. We didn't fight as hard as we usually do. We may have underestimated McCarron and their run game. We had to turn it around."

Ware, who acknowledged that Jackson's schemes kept the Broncos off balance in the first half, credited defensive coordinator Wade Phillips with making halftime adjustments. Phillips, in turn, passed the plaudits back to his players.

"It was more like an attitude adjustment," Phillips said as he left the locker room. "We hadn't played that bad the whole year. We went in and said, 'We need to shut these guys out the second half.' "

The Broncos almost did, and Osweiler -- starting his sixth career game, all since replacing the injured (and turnover-prone) living legend Peyton Manning in mid-November -- did his part by getting the Broncos into the end zone twice.

First, Osweiler (27 of 39, 299 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions) opened the second half with an 11-play, 81-yard drive that ended with an 8-yard scoring pass to receiver Emmanuel Sanders, ending a streak of 23 consecutive scoreless second-half drives that had spanned the previous three games. Given that Denver had blown leads in the two most recent of those games, resulting in dispiriting defeats to the Raiders and Steelers, this was a huge psychological hurdle to overcome.

"Brock's been coming through for us all year, man," Talib said. "When it's the nitty-gritty time, he's dropping back, confident and making his throws. In the past few games, guys weren't making plays for him -- tonight, they did, and you saw what happened."

After the Broncos took a 17-14 lead on C.J. Anderson's 39-yard scoring run with 11:17 remaining in regulation, McCarron rallied the Bengals once more, setting up Nugent's 52-yard, game-tying field goal.

From that point on, Osweiler was at his best, whether he was connecting with star receiver Demaryius Thomas (whose diving, one-handed catch of a third-and-3 pass set up the Broncos' go-ahead field goal on the first drive in overtime) or far less heralded targets like veteran tight end Owen Daniels, slot receiver Jordan Norwood or first-year wideout Bennie Fowler.

Two potential winning drives were derailed in the final minutes of regulation by Anderson's fumble (at the Cincinnati 27) and McManus' shanked 45-yard field goal as time expired, respectively.

No worries: After the Broncos won the coin toss and elected to receive, Osweiler began the overtime at his own 20 and methodically drove Denver downfield, and McManus' 37-yard field goal put McCarron and the Bengals in a score-or-else situation.

Two plays later, or else reared its ugly head when McCarron mishandled a shotgun snap. Ware, coming off the left edge, knew precisely what was at stake when he saw the ball pop free.

"It was crazy," Ware said. "As soon as it fell, I thought, 'I have to get this ball' -- and then the word 'PLAYOFFS' just flashed into my brain. It seemed like it took a long time to get there."

In reality, Ware blew past right tackle Andre Smith and, in a split second, beat the lunging McCarron to the ball -- bringing the Broncos one step closer to a fruitful January. Many could have foreseen that at the start of the season, but very few would have predicted that Osweiler would be the quarterback guiding them into the postseason.

With Manning continuing to battle a plantar fascia injury (not to mention an Al Jazeera report linking him to possible HGH usage four years ago, which the future first-ballot Hall of Famer has vehemently denied), Broncos coach Gary Kubiak has yet to declare that the starting job is Osweiler's to keep -- but he doesn't have to. Broncos sources have indicated as much, and Osweiler's teammates seem to be openly supportive of the status quo.

"He keeps his composure," Ware said of the fourth-year pro. "He doesn't play afraid. And he makes good decisions."

Said Thomas: "He's got [swag]. I like it. It's a little different vibe -- you see him get hit hard and he's like, '[Screw] it.' He's in the huddle acting like nothing even happened, and then he goes out and makes the next throw."

The Bengals, who've suffered four consecutive playoff flameouts, must now confront the reality that McCarron will be almost certainly be making the throws that matter as Cincinnati attempts to win its first postseason game since 1991.

"Well, that's the way it is," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said as he headed to the team bus. "We'll keep fighting."

A few minutes later, Jackson echoed his boss' disappointed yet defiant tone.

"We had our chances," he said. "I'm mad -- mad at myself. But we can get better, and AJ can get this done. We have to. There is no choice."

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @mikesilver.

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