CINCINNATI (AP) – Aqib Talib returned Andy Dalton’s too-high pass for a touchdown, but Jeremy Hill countered with an 85-yard touchdown run on Monday night and the Bengals ran their way to a 20-7 halftime lead over the Denver Broncos.
It was another rough start to a night game for Dalton, who came in 2-6 career during prime time. The longest run of Hill’s rookie season helped Cincinnati keep pace in a game with playoff implications for both teams.
The Bengals’ running game made the difference, piling up 166 yards in the half – the most that Denver had allowed in any game this season. Hill ran for 107 yards, his fourth 100-yard game.
The Broncos had clinched the AFC West and could earn a first-round playoff bye with a victory over the Bengals. They needed a win to stay in the running with New England for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The Bengals had a lot at stake as well. A win would clinch a fourth straight playoff berth, a franchise first. They will play in Pittsburgh next Sunday night, with the winner earning the AFC North title.
With two night games in six days, the Bengals had a chance to either get beyond or reinforce their reputation for falling apart under the lights. They were 18-41 all-time in prime time, including 10-20 on Monday nights. They’d been blown out by New England and Cleveland in their two night games this season.
Peyton Manning was sick and strained his right thigh during a 22-10 win over San Diego a week earlier. After being limited in practice all week, he was 9 of 15 for only 88 yards with an interception in the half.
Manning came in 8-0 against the Bengals with 20 touchdowns and only five interceptions. He’d thrown at least three touchdown passes in five of those eight games.
By contrast, Dalton had plenty to prove. He had one of his worst games during a 24-3 loss to Cleveland on a Thursday night, throwing three interceptions and finishing with a passer rating of 2.0.
Dalton overthrew A.J. Green on Cincinnati’s second possession, and Talib made a diving interception and a 33-yard return for his sixth touchdown since 2009. Safety T.J. Ward hit Green’s upper right arm after he missed the high throw, and the receiver was in and out of the lineup for the rest of the half, favoring the arm.
Hill took a handoff, slipped out of the grasp of Todd Davis and went 85 yards for a tying touchdown against the NFL’s second-stingiest run defense. The Broncos hadn’t allowed a run of more than 27 yards this season.
Safety Reggie Nelson wrestled the ball away from tight end Julius Thomas for an interception, and Dalton’s 2-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Gresham made it 17-7. Mike Nugent kicked field goals of 37 and 49 yards in the half, while Connor Barth missed one from 49 yards.
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