CINCINNATI -- The fourth-quarter clock ticked to the final three minutes.
Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick peeked to his right and saw Manning flash a sign that he had seen in his week of film study and preparation.
Kirkpatrick could tell that Manning was about to throw his way.
An inside route by Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas and an outside read from Kirkpatrick later, and Manning all but handed the third-year defensive back his second interception of the season. Kirkpatrick returned it 30 yards for a touchdown that pushed the Bengals' lead to two scores. It was the singular play that defined a just-good-enough defensive performance in the Bengals' playoff-clinching, 37-28 win Monday night.
"I'm not saying we knew what he was going to do," said Kirkpatrick, who picked Manning off a second time nearly two minutes later to ice the game. "[But] I kind of knew in a sense that he was coming my way. I just played my technique, and everything came my way."
Although they intercepted Manning four times and were dominant at times, the Bengals lacked consistency on defense, especially during a third quarter in which Denver scored three touchdowns to erase a 20-7 halftime deficit.
"Even if it appeared that we were [impressive], they still scored points," safety George Iloka said. "It wasn't pretty, but with a quarterback like a Peyton, [Tom] Brady, Aaron Rodgers, it's a battle. You've got to play all four quarters."
In the past 14 months, each of those quarterbacks have gone down at Paul Brown Stadium. And just like they did with Manning, who entered with an 8-0 career record against Cincinnati, the Bengals needed some stroke of magic in the final minute to beat the other two. Against Brady last October, the Bengals won when Adam Jones intercepted a pass that he bobbled to himself in a driving rainstorm near the Bengals' goal line.
Monday's finish was eerily similar, all the way down to the rain showers that descended upon the stadium in the fourth quarter. Manning's receivers had trouble catching the ball in the weather, repeatedly dropping his passes onto the slick field turf.
According to the Bengals, that's not all that changed in the fourth quarter.
"We just said, 'We're not going to be beat,' and as a secondary especially, we did good at keeping our poise," safety Reggie Nelson said. "We just didn't want to give the game away, period, because they've been down numerous times and came back on numerous teams."
What also changed was that at the end of the third quarter, the Bengals switched from veteran cornerback Terence Newman to Kirkpatrick following a series of passes in which Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders burned Newman. On consecutive series, Newman was beaten on a 33-yard completion that he also was flagged with defensive pass interference on, and a 46-yard completion.
Not long after, in came Kirkpatrick, who effectively finished the game at the left boundary corner position. His emergence off the bench gave the Bengals a timely and adequate jolt ahead of a win that put them in the postseason for a franchise-record fourth straight season.
"It's just what he does," Iloka said of Kirkpatrick. "He gets the job done and does it very well. I'm really proud of him. Like he always told y'all, he'll be ready when his time comes."
Some Bengals fans want his time to be now. They want him to start for Newman next week at Pittsburgh. That likely won't happen, but Kirkpatrick's time isn't far away.
"Good things come to those that wait," Kirkpatrick said.