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Bengals pick off Peyton four times, earn playoff berth

The Cincinnati Bengals locked up a playoff berth on Monday night, intercepting Peyton Manning four times en route to a 37-28 victory over the Denver Broncos. Our takeaways.

  1. Furiously rallying from an early pick-six by their own quarterback, the Bengals rendered the Andy Dalton prime-time narrative a non-factor with a dominant ground attack, an opportunistic defense and an explosive return game on special teams. For the second week in a row, Cincinnati won in spite of Dalton, who lost A.J. Green for a significant portion of the evening and struggled to connect on passes of the non-screen variety. With Dalton scuffling, Mohamed Sanu slumping and Green's dangling arm in question for the first-place battle with the Steelers next week, the Bengals' aerial attack is riddled with question marks.
  1. After starting the season with a passer rating north of 110.0 in six of seven games, Manning has been under 90.0 in five of the last eight. His interception rate has quadrupled in December. Here's what we can say with confidence about the decline in Manning's efficiency: When he's operating out of the shotgun with a clean pocket and a chance to get in rhythm, he can still pick a defense apart with surgical precision. When he's under center in a predictable situation out of a six-lineman jumbo set, he's more likely to throw floaters. Either way, his arm strength has waned since the start of the season, decreasing his margin for error in tight windows. The Seahawks got over their identity crisis by going back to Marshawn Lynch. The Broncos don't seem confident in regaining theirs by putting the offense back in Manning's hands.
  1. Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard give the Bengals their best backfield since the thunder-and-lightning duo of Ickey Woods and James Brooks set the tone for the 1988 Super Bowl squad. Like Woods, Hill is a between-the-tackles hammer with quick feet and breakaway speed. Like Brooks, Bernard works best in open formations, beating linebackers to the edge and making defensive backs miss after the catch. One potential snag is the ongoing fumbling problem of Hill, which has drawn the ire of Marvin Lewis and continued Monday night.
  1. The Broncos sorely missed injured linebackers Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan, allowing the most first-half rushing yards (166) by the Bengals in 15 years. Losing hard-hitting safety T.J. Ward to a neck injury late in the game won't help matters for a run defense that entered the game second only to the Lions. This performance resurrected the same nagging toughness question which dogged Denver's defense at this time a year ago.
  1. The sky isn't falling on Denver after the first loss in five weeks, but there are issues to be ironed out beyond the one-dimensional offense and injury-depleted defense. The offensive line allowed eight quarterback hits against the NFL's worst pass rush, game-breaking tight end Julius Thomas was in and out of the lineup after aggravating his ankle injury and Wes Welker has lost any semblance of playmaking ability.
  1. The Broncos' loss means the Patriots have clinched homefield advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. Denver needs a win over Oakland next week to sew up the No. 2 seed. San Diego, Baltimore, Houston and Kansas City are battling for the AFC's final spot.

The latest Around The NFL Podcast recaps every Week 16 game and breaks down the playoff picture. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.

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