DENVER (AP) — By pulling off a rare win in Denver, the Cincinnati Bengals gave themselves a chance to do something that's only been done four times since the NFL adopted its current 12-team playoff format in 1990: recover from a 3-6 start to get their names on the list for the postseason party.
The only teams to do it were the '94 Patriots, '95 Lions, '96 Jaguars and Washington five years ago.The Bengals (4-6) aim to be the fifth after beating the Broncos 20-17 Sunday on the strength of three Andy Dalton TD passes, two takeaways and a blocked field goal.
Every year, there's a team that gets hot when it gets cold, Lewis said.
"Last year, it was Green Bay," which reached the playoffs with six straight wins following a 4-6 start, he noted. "They ran the table and this year, it's going to be somebody else."
Why not his Bengals?
Aside from the AFC's division leaders, there are nine teams with between four and six wins. The Bengals are just one game out of the second wild-card spot.
"There are a lot of teams in the situation we were in starting today and teams are going to get hot and get going," Lewis said. "We play some of them and they play each other. So we have an opportunity if we just handle our business."
"Yeah?" linebacker Vontaze Burfict said when told the Bengals are only one game back in the wild card race. "Don't count us out yet."
"We're still in it," Bengals receiver Brandon LaFell said. "You look around the league, there's a lot of teams 4-6, 5-5. So, we're right in the thick of things."
Dalton led the Bengals to their first win in Denver since 1975 when franchise founder Paul Brown was their head coach.
"I didn't know that stat," Dalton said. "It feels good anytime you can win. It's tough to win on the road. For us, this is big."
Lewis conveniently left out the fact that the Bengals had lost 10 in a row at Denver in prepping his team for this game.
"These guys weren't even alive in '75, were they?" Lewis said.
That year, Brown's Bengals prevailed 17-16 at the old Mile High Stadium, which is now a parking lot.
"No, I don't remember that," cracked A.J. Green, who wasn't born until 1988. "I don't keep up with history a lot."
The Bengals' victory sent the Broncos (3-7) to their sixth straight loss, their longest skid in 27 years.
The Bengals took a 13-7 halftime lead with Dalton’s TD throws of 1 yard to Tyler Kroft and 29 yards to Alex Erickson. The first was set up by cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick’s 101-yard interception return and fumble recovery just shy of the opposite end zone after fumbling at the Broncos 15-yard line.
"I've got to punch that in," lamented Kirkpatrick.
Randy Bullock missed the extra point after Dalton’s TD pass to Kroft, and because his first completion had lost a yard, Dalton had this oddball stat line: zero passing yards but one TD throw.
The Broncos reached the Cincinnati 3 on their next drive and running back C.J. Anderson and sneaked across the goal line for Denver’s first rushing touchdown in the first quarter all season.
Brandon McManus’ extra point put Denver ahead 7-6, but the Bengals responded with their second touchdown to go up 13-7.
Denver kicker Brandon McManus nalied a 61-yard field goal just before halftime, but Lewis had called a timeout and his do-over was blocked by KeiVarae Russell.
McManus pulled Denver to 13-10 with a 45-yarder in the third quarter, but Green's 18-yard TD catch with 8:56 remaining made it 20-10. Demaryius Thomas' 17-yard touchdown catch pulled the Broncos within 20-17 with five minutes left.
Trailing by a field goal, the Broncos got the ball back with 1:52 left on their 20-yard line, but Brock Osweiler's low throw to Emmanuel Sanders on fourth-and-4 was broken up by Kirkpatrick.
Osweiler fell to 0-3 since supplanting Trevor Siemian, who was leap-frogged by Paxton Lynch for the first time Sunday when Lynch was the backup and Siemian inactive.
FAMILIAR FOE : It wasn't the ending to the reunion that Broncos nose tackle Domata Peko Sr. was envisioning. Peko spent 11 seasons with the Bengals before joining the Broncos this spring.
"It was really emotional because I was there for a decade," said Peko, who led the Broncos with six tackles. "That's all I knew was Bengals football. All I knew was Paul Brown Stadium and the Jungle. It was part of me. For me to lose, that really hurt me personally. It also hurts as a team, of course."
DENVER GIVEAWAYS: Osweiler's interception in the end zone that led to Cincinnati's first touchdown and C.J. Anderson's fumble that led to the Bengals' final TD brought Denver to minus-16 in takeaways.
"I just can't do that to my teammates. It just hurts," Anderson said through sobs.
QUARTERBACK QUAGMIRE: It might be time for the Broncos to see conclusively if Paxton Lynch is a bust or just a late-bloomer.
"We'll see," coach Vance Joseph said. "We're going to watch the tape and see where we are as an offense. Obviously, he's healthy now. He's a young player with talent."
Lynch dressed out for the first time this season, leapfrogging Trevor Siemian, who went from starter to inactive in three weeks.
But Lynch looked disengaged on the sideline where he didn't talk to the coaches and had very little interaction with his teammates.
Even though he couldn't beat out Siemian two straight summers, Lynch might end up rising to the top of Denver's depth chart because Osweiler has completed just 53 percent of his passes with three TD throws and four interceptions.
Siemian had a 62 completion percentage with nine TDs, 10 interceptions and two lost fumbles while going 3-4.
"I'm never going to look over my shoulder," Osweiler said.
WHO YOU CALLING SOFT ? The Broncos were unable to rally to victory 48 hours after their boss, GM John Elway, suggested his team had gotten soft after a 3-1 start that followed a perfect preseason.
While Joseph said he was taken aback but ultimately agreed, the vibe in the locker room was one of anger mixed with acceptance.
Here's what cornerback Chris Harris Jr. had to say about Elway's dig:
"Everybody in this organization is accountable for how we are playing right now."
That evidently includes Elway, who hasn't drafted an All-Pro since 2011 and has a spotty record in free agency since Peyton Manning's retirement.
INJURIES: Bengals LB Vincent Rey pulled his left hamstring in the second quarter and didn’t return. ... Kroft hurt his right hand in the third quarter but returned, and S Shawn Williams was taken inside for IV fluids in the third quarter. He and Burfict were in and out of the lineup in the second half.
UP NEXT: Bengals: Host the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.
Broncos: Travel to Oakland seeking season sweep of the Raiders, whom they edged 16-10 on Oct. 1 before beginning their slide.