CINCINNATI - It was time to respond. The Bengals knew it.
They were becoming known as a team that played small in big moments. And one of buckling knees at even the sight of Peyton Manning. He was 8-0 against them.
The Bengals figured it out. They figured out Manning, too. Their 37-28 victory over the Denver Broncos on Monday night at Paul Brown Stadium pushed them into the playoffs. It shoved aside the notion that they are a shrinking team. And it cleansed the Manning blot.
"The only way to deal with a situation like that is to respond," Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton said. "Now they can't say we haven't done it. It's now been proven."
Dalton picked a funky way to start the Bengals' message. A little less than five minutes into the game, he threw a terribly high pass on a slant route to receiver A.J. Green that was returned 33 yards for a touchdown by Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib. Denver up 7-0.
But 23 seconds later the Bengals responded.
Running back Jeremy Hill bolted 85 yards for a touchdown. Tie game now.
Big Night for Bengals
Big Night for Bengals
It kept going that way for the Bengals, a quick answer to anything Denver produced. It was that way in the passing game, where Dalton matched Manning's two passing scores. It was certainly that way in the running game, where the Bengals won 207 yards to 85. And it was that way for the Bengals' defense, which sacked Manning twice and intercepted him four times, returning one for a touchdown.
"I've been watching Peyton since I was in middle school," said Bengals third-year cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, whose pick and score of 30 yards with 2:41 left helped ice the game. "I don't know him, but he seems like a great guy. We had to show him something. We had to show we can play and get that out of the way."
The Bengals are young and fast. They possess the ability to strike quickly.
Their punt return and kickoff return games were sensational on Monday night. Brandon Tate returned a punt 49 yards in daring and electric fashion. And Adam Jones returned three kickoffs for 134 yards, including one for 80. He repeatedly made the Broncos' kickoff coverage look lame. At age 31, in his eighth pro season, he still runs like a rookie and occasionally distinguishes himself on the field as a star.
It has never been about talent with the Bengals. It has never been about speed and motor and will. It has been about their youth becoming confident and hardened and their quarterback rising in play.
Dalton knows this, too.
He could take pride in rising above his awful start in this game. And pride in leaving with a 89.6 passer rating, better than Manning's 61.8.
But Dalton also has to do more and be better if the Bengals are going to do anything special this season. He has to limit his big mistakes and execute even more sharply. The Bengals just reached the playoffs for the fourth straight season. That is, indeed, special. But it is not special enough for Dalton or anyone in Cinciinnati.
There is the AFC North crown to be won this Sunday when Cincinnati plays at Pittsburgh.
There is a deep playoff run that the Bengals desperately want to make.
"There is a lot more out there for us and we want it," Dalton said.
Receiver A.J. Green added: "We got a burden off our backs with this one. It's not shocking to us. We had a lot of elements working for us tonight. We've got the kind of team that can win a lot of ways."
They want to keep showing it.
That was on Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis' mind. He made his postgame speech to his players direct and sweet and short. Keep growing. This is over. Pittsburgh is next.
"We've got a game coming up pretty quickly here," Lewis said later.
He knows that to win the division championship at Pittsburgh would not only be sweet but would also ensure a home playoff game. But Lewis and the Bengals are clearly looking for more than that.
"We just beat a hell of a team by outplaying them tonight," Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. "It was a strong step. But we are still basically a young football team that is developing fairly well that must develop even faster. There are bigger moments. We have made the playoffs now four years in a row. But we've got to do more with that this time. We're just not happy with being in anymore."
The Bengals may be focused on one game at a time. But there is clearly a vision here that goes beyond that. It has to do with what they are and who they are. With their mixture of youth and age. With Lewis and his coaching staff's guiding hands. With the hunger the Bengals feel to become elite in the AFC this season, in these playoffs, in this Super Bowl.
And their attempt will be made with attitude.
Jones describes it this way:
"We started this particular journey back in April in camps, believing in each other and playing hard. We left all of that training ready for this grind. We have a certain trust in each other. We get along. We take family trips together. We have a football team that plays this game with intelligence and with fight. We are smart bullies."