Broncos hold off Bengals on bad snap

DENVER (Dec. 24, 2006) -- The playoffs are slipping right through the Cincinnati Bengals' fingers.

The Bengals lost to Denver 24-23 on a snowy Sunday when Brad St. Louis' long snap on an extra point in the final minute sailed wide of holder Kyle Larson, preventing Shayne Graham from even attempting his 159th straight conversion.

"That only happens on PlayStation games," Broncos lineman Kenard Lang said. "I'm sitting there amazed."

The Bengals were offside on the ensuing onside kick, and then Quincy Morgan fielded the short second kickoff, sealing the win for Denver (9-6), which can clinch a playoff spot with a win next week against San Francisco.

Needing only to beat the Broncos to get into the postseason party themselves, the Bengals (8-7), who were in control of the wild-card race before losing at Indy last week, drove 90 yards in 12 plays, with Carson Palmer tossing a 10-yard touchdown strike to T.J. Houshmandzadeh with 46 seconds left.

Then came the wide and wobbly snap that doomed the Bengals, who now must beat Pittsburgh at home next week and get some help to get into the playoffs.

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis was kicking himself afterward.

"I thought about going for two," he said. "But that doesn't matter now, does it?"

The Broncos, some of whom were snowed in at their practice facility during the week when a blizzard dumped three feet of snow on the city, felt like the weather did them a favor for a change.

"The snow came along at the right time, I guess," Broncos receiver Rod Smith said.

"When the ball is a little slick like that, there is always an opportunity for that to happen, especially when the pressure is on," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said.

The Bengals didn't blame rattled nerves or bad weather.

"I didn't put the ball in Kyle's hands," St. Louis said.

"We've done it a thousand times," said Larson. "We didn't execute. It had nothing to do with a wet ball or conditions. We work on this every day in practice. I reached for it. The bottom line is we need to work together as a unit."

The Broncos got four takeaways, two from Champ Bailey, who recorded his NFL-high ninth interception and also recovered Chad Johnson's first career fumble in an especially hard-hitting game between two wild-card wannabes.

The Bengals lost for the eighth straight time in Denver despite big games from Houshmandzadeh (nine catches, 94 yards) and Rudi Johnson (30 carries, 129 yards and a touchdown).

After the game, Domonique Foxworth hyperventilated at his locker but said he was fine.

"Kid played his heart out," safety John Lynch said. "Sure was a scary moment in here."

Jay Cutler, the kid from Santa Claus, Ind., delivered for Denver on Christmas Eve, becoming the first NFL quarterback to throw for multiple touchdowns in each of his first four games.

He hit fellow rookie Tony Scheffler for a 1-yard score and threw a 39-yard touchdown pass to Javon Walker in the first half.

His signature drive was a 99-yarder that was capped by fellow rookie Mike Bell's 2-yard run, giving the Broncos a 21-17 lead in the third quarter. It was the eighth touchdown for the undrafted rookie who took over the bulk of the rushing load in the second half after Tatum Bell's costly fumble led to a Cincinnati touchdown just before halftime.

Palmer hit Chris Henry with an 11-yard scoring strike for a 17-14 halftime lead, but their 75-yard touchdown connection in the second half was nullified by an illegal shift.

After Jason Elam's 24-yard field goal gave the Broncos a 24-17 lead in the third quarter, Lynch sliced through the line on a quick snap and forced Rudi Johnson's fumble. Elvis Dumervil recovered.

Bailey, who has an NFL-high 17 interceptions in the last two seasons, set up Denver's first two touchdowns with his takeaways.

Palmer, who played with a sore passing shoulder, completed 21 of 40 passes for 209 yards.

"My shoulder was fine. I felt fine. I felt great," Palmer said. "I just didn't play great."

Neither did Chad Johnson, who got the better of Bailey in a game in 2004 when he caught seven passes for 149 yards and one score. This time, "Ocho Cinco" had three catches for 32 yards.

"The first half might have been my worst first half ever," he said. "I dropped a ball, I lose a ball on the fumble. It didn't play out the way it should have played out."

For Cincinnati, neither did the point-after.

Notes: Mike Bell is one TD shy of the NFL mark for an undrafted rookie. Dominic Rhodes had nine for Indianapolis in 2001. ... The teams combined for 27 possessions, 17 of them in the first half.

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