By PAUL KLEE
Tribune News Service
CINCINNATI -- Maybe I'm missing something. Did you expect the Broncos to go 19-0 and become the first team to host a Super Bowl parade on the moon?
Because the Broncos losing 37-28 to the Bengals is not a bad loss. Not even close. Losing on the road, in the final four minutes, on the chaotic, rain-soaked Monday night the Bengals clinched a playoff berth and sent the third-largest crowd in stadium history into hysterics?
That's not even in the same ballpark as a bad loss.
This is simply what happens when the better teams in the AFC catch up to the Broncos. They are on an even playing field now. They are not the offensive juggernaut that rewrote records all the way to the Super Bowl last season, or the balanced powerhouse that also earned a No. 1 seed two years ago.
We already knew that, didn't we?
The Broncos have a fine shot to win the Super Bowl, but they are quite clearly not the favorite to do so. That should've been clear weeks before Peyton Manning threw four interceptions and their special teams opened a swinging gate for the Bengals.
These Broncos have been invented and reinvented, forward and backward, bobbing up and down, a team that should moonlight as a river guide on the Arkansas in the offseason. This wasn't different.
The troubling part is how the Broncos looked unprepared on "Monday Night Football." They made preseason mistakes in Week 16. They looked like a team that almost stole one because it has superior talent, not because its game plan was superior.
They called a passing play on third-and-1, and the Bengals returned an interception for a touchdown that sealed the win. They looked like special teams is a thing they practice on Madden '14, not on the perfectly groomed fields at Dove Valley.
On kickoffs, the Bengals didn't flinch when given the opportunity return a kick from 8 yards deep in their end zone. Why would they? Cincinnati's special teams were its best offense. The Bengals averaged 44.7 yards per kickoff return and 24 yards per punt return. I spent most of last week at Dove Valley, so I can confirm the Broncos practiced last week, but I can't confirm nor deny if they practiced special teams.
"The returns just kept us going," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said.
Manning was magic, and then he was old. The sideline laser to Emmanuel Sanders, who made a one-handed catch, was magic. But Manning has thrown 12 interceptions over the past eight games. Passes that were simple seem difficult, although every now and again he makes the difficult look simple. They can't lean on No. 18 to carry them.
"It wasn't good," Manning said. "With four interceptions, you're not going to beat many good football teams."
Is Manning injured? Check back when he retires. He's not letting on either way. Are you OK?
No problems with the thigh?
All that nonsense and negativity, and the Broncos were just a phantom facemask away from pilfering a win in front of 66,107 diehards who didn't seem to notice the Ohio River was being redirected onto their "Who Dey!" chants. The dark skies dumped rain from the third quarter on. It rained so hard the brightly lit suspension bridge that crosses that Ohio River was like a flickering candle in the distance.
Manning hit Demaryius Thomas for a long gain that was called back on a facemask penalty on DT. From there, the Broncos were soggy toast.
"We had an opportunity to win this game tonight," Manning said. "We would have preferred that."
The Broncos would have preferred an easy road to the Super Bowl. Instead, they most likely will enter the AFC playoffs as the most confounding No. 2 seed in recent history. All they need to earn a first-round bye is to beat the Raiders next Sunday. Cherry Creek could beat the Raiders. The Raiders could beat the Raiders.
"I told the guys a long time ago that it really doesn't matter where you start, but where you finish," coach John Fox said. "We had a setback tonight that we'll learn from."
The Broncos won their first Super Bowl after two losses in December. They won their second Super Bowl after two losses in December. Monday's was their first loss this December, the latest sign they are not perfect, even if most expect them to be. In an imperfect season and in an imperfect AFC, the Broncos sometimes are fantastic and sometimes are flawed. Monday night didn't change a thing.