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Broncos 31, Bengals 23: Three observations

CINCINNATI – Three observations from the Broncos’ 31-23 win over the Bengals here Sunday afternoon:

1. DOWN A FEW POINTS — WHY WORRY?

If the Library of Congress does indeed fully catalog tweets, then the momentary panic that set in over Broncos fans after the Bengals’ takeaway-fueled 17-0 second-half run will be preserved for posterity.

Peyton Manning had a pair of throws he’d like to have back, the defense surrendered a pair of scores, A.J. Green was able to make plays in front of Champ Bailey, and nervous tics reached a fever pitch. At least among many fans.

On the sideline — not so much. They’d trailed by 20 points twice and 24 points twice, and rallied back to make it interesting three times and for victory once. A 20-17 deficit? So what? And thus, Manning went about leading the 48th game-winning fourth-quarter drive of his career, completely unruffled by Terence Newman’s two interceptions, including one on a pass overthrown by two steps.

‘I’ve certainly been there before,” Manning said. “My dad always says, ‘Get back to level zero.’ You have to erase the play from your mind.”

So Manning steps onto the field, the Paul Brown Stadium fans roaring to get their side back into the game — and promptly completes a pass, starting a fourth quarter in which he was a perfect 6-of-6 for 69 yards and two touchdowns. His receivers helped him along, particularly on a pair of third-down catch-and-runs by Eric Decker and Brandon Stokley, each of which helped set up touchdowns.

It isn’t just by the numbers that Manning can be measured — although they were impressive in the aft 15 minutes. It’s the coolness he exudes that rubs off on everyone around him, and makes them just as likely to make a game-changing play as he is. Thus, Decker takes a short pass, breaks two tackles, and turns a three-yard gain into a 30-yarder.

“There’s no panic,” Stokley said. “You’re going to have some ups and some downs. That’s our mindset.”

And unless the Broncos fall into a 28-3 hole, they’ll shrug and say, “Meh, we’ve seen worse.” And respond accordingly. It’s like Keith Bishop, an offensive lineman in the 1980′s, said as “The Drive” began: “We’ve got ‘em right where we want ‘em!” That same ethos holds true with Manning at the controls; because of that, this team could soar long into the winter.

2. PASSING ALONG THE CREDIT:

I always find it fascinating to hear players talk about the accomplishments of themselves and their teammates on the record. Many are quick to downplay their own stellar moments, but will salute a teammate for making it possible.

When you talk to Denver’s cornerbacks, you’ll often hear that it’s the pass rush that makes their improving play possible. When you speak with pass rushers like Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, they’ll remind you it’s strong coverage in the secondary that sets them up for sacks.

“Well, that’s how it’s supposed to be,” said Bailey, who intercepted his first pass in 364 days Sunday. “When we talk about our successes, it’s supposed to be the other group. Not your group. Those guys up front, they had them rattled. I think on my pick, the quarterback (Andy Dalton) was a little rattled. They’re the ones that cause us to make plays on the back end.”

Dalton was rattled by pressure, which came on third-and-25 and led to a duck that sailed into Bailey’s grasp. Pressure made the difference there, but coverage helped set up most of Denver’s five sacks, including one where Miller bull-rushed Cincinnati’s Andre Smith into oblivion — no small task given Smith’s 335-pound girth. Miller pushed Smith back, then cut back inside before the 2009 first-rounder could respond, recording the easiest of his three sacks.

“They were able to lock down A.J. Green — well, they didn’t lock him down completely, but they were able to give us time to rush the passer,” said Miller, “and whenever you can get time to do you job, you’ve got to get there, and that’s what we did today.”

3. THE HIGH-WIRE ACT THAT IS THE TRINDON HOLLIDAY EXPERIENCE:

Only the Flying Wallendas worked on more of a tightrope between glory and disaster than the Broncos’ new primary kickoff and punt returner. Frankly, that’s part of the fun of the 5-foot-5 Holliday, who in scoring the longest touchdown in Broncos history showed the kind of acceleration that intrigued them when the Texans placed him on waivers last month.

“I started bouncing it outside, and they overplayed the outside,” said Holliday, when asked to describe what he saw on the 105-yard return that put Denver in front 17-3. “Then I saw the hole on the inside and I just hit it. I passed the first wave and that was it.”

However, later in the third quarter, he misjudged a kickoff that bounced at the 2-yard-line, then hesitated before trying to field it, which forced Lance Ball to alertly turn around and retrieve it, but led to confusion that ended with the ball at the Denver 1. This, like the fumbled punt in Week 6 at San Diego, appears to be part of the wild ride.

Nevertheless, the threat of an explosive play is just one more weapon in a steadily growing arsenal that could power the Broncos to their best season since back-to-back Super Bowl trips in 1997 and 1998 — teams which were also burnished by returners with breakaway capabilities: Darrien Gordon on punt returns and Vaughn Hebron on kickoffs. They combined for four touchdowns over those two years. Holliday might match that total by himself in less time — but he’ll have to learn how to curb the flirtations with disaster before the Broncos can truly be at ease enough to send him, and not Jim Leonhard, back to return punts inside their 10 when simply catching the football is the highest priority.

But if Holliday keeps making big plays, he’s worth the risk.

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