What it means: The Broncos have spent much of the season with their Super-Bowl-or-bust mentality out front. But once again, they showed that might be a pipe dream if they can't smooth out their exceedingly rough edges on the road. Denver's stingy run defense was creased repeatedly, and the Broncos snuffed out their own rallies on special teams, thereby allowing the Bengals to secure quality field position, which they turned into key points. Toss in a few dropped passes and four interceptions by Peyton Manning, and now not only are the Broncos out of the running for home-field advantage in the AFC, but they're also going to have to fight just to earn a first-round bye.
Stock watch: If you already crossed 1,000 yards receiving two games before the end of the season, it’s difficult to raise your game. But Emmanuel Sanders continues to do just that. His diving, one-handed catch for a 32-yard gain in the third quarter was just another right-time, right-place play in a season that has already featured plenty. Demaryius Thomas, with his ninth 100-yard game of the season Monday, is the unquestioned Alpha receiver in the offense, but Sanders has been everything the Broncos had hoped for (and a little more) when they targeted him in free agency.
Target acquired: The Bengals showed they did their homework when it comes to attacking the Broncos' defense. With linebacker Brandon Marshall out with a foot injury and Danny Trevathan on injured reserve, the Broncos have been forced to dive deep into the depth chart in some of their specialty packages. Todd Davis -- an undrafted rookie the Broncos claimed last month off waivers from the New Orleans Saints -- and Steven Johnson both took their turns as the inside linebacker in the Broncos’ six-defensive back look. Both were targeted by Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. Jackson used a variety of formations to get the two chasing in coverage. The Broncos are hopeful they can get Marshall back in the postseason, and Monday showed just how big a part of their defensive success he has been this season.
Game ball: Omar Bolden deserves a look for his kickoff return to open the second half and start a Broncos rally, as does Demaryius Thomas for doing what he so often does in creating problems for most defensive plans. But in the end, Sanders' catch was just the kind of play the Broncos needed at a point when they most needed it.
What’s next: The Broncos close out the regular season against the Oakland Raiders (3-12) at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Broncos defeated the Raiders 41-17 on Nov. 9 in Oakland. The Raiders forced two early interceptions in that game, but the Broncos powered through to the win with a rally started by C.J. Anderson’s catch-and-run touchdown.