DENVER -- It was a moment AJ McCarron had felt prepared for.
A two-time national champion in college, the Cincinnati Bengals quarterback had been in pressure situations before -- particularly those in which a close game was on the line -- based upon how he could rally his offense and lead it downfield for a key score.
This time, unlike all those games at Alabama before, he wouldn't engineer a game-winning touchdown drive.
In overtime against the Denver Broncos on Monday night, McCarron watched helplessly as a snap sailed past him and onto the ground for a fumble that was recovered in the sudden-death scenario by the victorious Broncos. It appeared McCarron wasn't ready for the football to be fired his way and could only flail after it as the ball hit the ground. When it did, the turnover preserved a 20-17 Broncos win.
What it means: The Bengals' prime-time loss pushed them down to the AFC's No. 3 seed. Their hopes of earning the conference's top seed are now completely gone, although they still have an outside shot at reclaiming the AFC's No. 2 seed with help next week. The Bengals not only have to beat Baltimore, but the Broncos also have to lose to the visiting Chargers.
What were they thinking? After operating in sync for much of the game, McCarron and A.J. Green got out of step at perhaps the most inopportune time. With about seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, there was a moment when McCarron and Green failed to hook up on a deep third-down pass into the end zone. Just before McCarron let go of the football, Green stopped what appeared to be an intermediate route into the middle of the field. It was unclear what he was thinking at the moment or what he saw to stop his momentum. A split second after his hesitation, though, Green got going again and sprinted toward the end zone, where McCarron lobbed a pass into the back of the end zone. Although Green ultimately got in the neighborhood of the ball, he didn't quite recover enough to track it all the way into his hands. The incomplete pass led to Mike Nugent's game-tying 52-yard field goal a play later. What exactly was Green thinking?
One reason to be excited: After a finish as deflating as that one, it's hard for Bengals fans to have anything to be excited about. But remember this: The Bengals were playing a game on the road against the No. 1 pass defense, No. 1 run defense and No. 2 scoring defense. And they were doing so with a second-year backup quarterback who was making only his second career start. There were plenty of reasons for the Bengals to have been blown out on Monday, but they started fast and stayed in the game, even into overtime.
One reason to panic: For some still-unknown reason, the Bengals under McCarron continue to have trouble in the second half sustaining the momentum they had established in the first half. Last week at San Francisco, the offense went stale after posting 21 points in the second quarter. The Bengals could only muster a third-quarter field goal as they held on for a 24-14 win. Much the same thing happened on Monday night, as the offense couldn't get into the end zone. It couldn't even capitalize on a timely Denver turnover in the fourth quarter. As the Bengals start getting closer to the postseason, they need to figure out ways to play more complete games offensively.
Fantasy watch: Coming into Monday night's game, there weren't many compelling reasons for fantasy players to start any of the Bengals' offensive players in their championship-round matchups. Quite frankly, the combination of the Broncos' defense -- at No. 1 overall -- and the fact the Bengals were being led in prime time and on the road by a young backup quarterback didn't bode well for their playmakers to have very productive performances. In spite of all of that, though, it was Cincinnati's second-year signal-caller who actually had a solid enough outing. Although the Bengals' offense went stale in the second half, McCarron still racked up 12 points for his fantasy owners.
Ouch: It was supposed to be a homecoming for Ryan Hewitt to remember. Instead, the H-back will do everything he can to forget this trip to his native Denver. A former undrafted player, the expectation was that he might have a slightly bigger role in the offense with tight end Tyler Eifert out for the game due to a concussion. A knee injury on the Bengals' opening possession changed any plans Cincinnati had for using Hewitt. His night ended not long after it began. The Bengals otherwise came out of the game healthy.