CINCINNATI -- When the Denver Broncos signed Peyton Manning in 2012, Champ Bailey was asked what it meant to have a quarterback like Manning in a team’s offense.
“Those guys, the greatest quarterbacks, give you the one thing other people can’t give you," Bailey said then. “They give you the belief you’re going to win -- that if there’s time on the clock and he has the ball, you’re going to win. There's no feeling like that if you're on a team."
And Monday night was just that kind of situation for Manning and the Broncos. The one where things are supposed to work out and another game gets added to the already long list of come-from-behind victories Manning has authored in his career.
The Broncos, down 30-28, had timeouts in hand, the ball on their own 20-yard line, 4:04 on the clock and Manning behind center. It was so, well, scripted, all laid out for another neat and tidy escape in a game the Broncos had already done so much to create their own problems in the first place.
“We felt like we had time and could make some plays to get it done," said wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. “We always have confidence."
On first down, Manning found Thomas for a 7-yard gain. On second down, Manning dumped it off to running back C.J. Anderson for a 2-yard gain. On third down, third-and-1 to be exact, the Broncos stuck to what had fueled their first comeback in the game.
Down 20-7 at halftime, they had shelved their recent run-first leanings and opened the 2013 playbook once again. They busted out the three-wide receiver sets, even went with an empty backfield on a smattering of snaps, and scored touchdowns on three consecutive possessions in the third quarter.
So, on that third-and-1, they were again using three wideouts, with Manning in the shotgun. Manning tried to jam the ball in for Thomas to get the first down. Except the receiver cut one way, the ball went the other, and Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick made a routine catch and ran it back 30 yards for a touchdown. Suddenly, a potential comeback was instead a two-score game, 37-28, and the Broncos were out of time to cover that kind of ground.
“I could have done a better job of taking care of him throwing the ball to me," Thomas said. “I could have done a better job breaking it up. ... I could have ran a better route, could have broken it up."
“That was a bad throw," Manning said. "The guy had good coverage. ... Think probably had Emmanuel [Sanders] open over the middle, even had Julius [Thomas], think his guy might have fallen down. Definitely picked the wrong guy to throw to."
Manning finished with his first four-interception game as the Broncos' quarterback. It was his first four-interception game since Dec. 5, 2010, with the Colts in an eerily familiar loss -- 38-35 to the Dallas Cowboys just months before he had spinal fusion surgery.
“[I] wasn’t good. Four interceptions, you’re not going to beat very many good football teams," Manning said.
Defenses have clogged the middle of the field in recent weeks, taking away the Broncos' favored crossing routes and roaming for big hits. Those same defenses have been willing to take their chances on forcing Manning to throw deep down the field, especially down the sidelines.
Asked following Monday’s game if he’s OK physically Manning said, “Um, yeah." Asked if the right thigh injury he suffered last week in San Diego affected him Monday night, Manning simply added, “No."
Manning has authored some big plays against defenses who have provided far more resistance than last season, and he leads the NFL in touchdown passes with 39, one more than Andrew Luck and three more than Aaron Rodgers. But the Broncos have been two very different teams this season, and the one that plays away from Denver isn’t the one they want to be or will need to be now if a Super Bowl run is still on the agenda.
The Broncos are 4-4 on the road, where Manning has thrown 11 of his 15 interceptions this season. The Broncos have played three games with weather as a factor -- at New England, at Kansas City and in the rain Monday in Cincinnati. The Broncos are 1-2 in those games, with Manning throwing six touchdowns and six interceptions.
But perhaps more concerning is the fact that the Broncos haven't shown the ability to pull Manning through a rough night on the road to get a win. Their special teams cratered Monday -- the Bengals had 206 return yards -- the defense allowed 207 yards rushing, including an 85-yard touchdown run, and the Broncos' injuries at linebacker appeared to have caught up to them.
Said defensive end DeMarcus Ware: “There are no excuses. ... No excuses. We didn’t get it done."