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Dalton leads Bengals with critical third-down carving of Denver D

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Andy Dalton's three touchdown passes led Cincinnati to a 20-17 win over the Broncos and kept the Bengals alive in the playoff conversation. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
Andy Dalton's three touchdown passes led Cincinnati to a 20-17 win over the Broncos and kept the Bengals alive in the playoff conversation. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images) /
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The Cincinnati Bengals culminated a three-game road trip with a 20-17 win over the Denver Broncos. Cincinnati was able to win its first game at Mile High in 42 years, thanks to critical third-down conversions.

The Broncos (3-7) came into yesterday’s tilt against the struggling Bengals (4-6) with the best third-down defense in the NFL. That meant a statistically poor matchup for a Cincinnati offense that went a combined 2-of-18 on third down in losses to Jacksonville and Tennessee.

Cincinnati needed to convert on third downs to put much-needed points on the board and finally give its defense a chance to catch its breath. They turned to Andy Dalton to do so and the seventh-year quarterback was able to flip the script.

The Bengals converted 7-of-15 third downs, converting mostly through the right arm (and legs) of Dalton.

“Good” Andy delivers

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On third downs, Dalton went 8-for-10 for 83 yards and three touchdowns.

After Dre Kirkpatrick’s 101-yard interception return gave Cincinnati the ball at the Denver 1, Joe Mixon was stuffed on back to back runs to set up third and goal. Dalton faked a give to Mixon and found Tyler Kroft for an easy pitch-and-catch. The play was a mimic of Kroft’s last touchdown reception, a one-yarder on fourth-and-goal against Pittsburgh.

Dalton spread the wealth on his next seven third-down completions. Denver stayed in man-to-man coverage in most scenarios, and Dalton picked on fourth-year corner Bradley Roby.

Cincinnati took the lead for good when Dalton dropped a 29-yard touchdown to Alex Erickson on third-and-four early in the second quarter. Midway through the fourth quarter, A.J. Green won a one-on-one with Roby for an 18-yard score (on third-and-two) that turned out to be the game-sealing touchdown.

Timely

Perhaps the biggest drive, though, for Cincinnati in Sunday’s season-saving victory was its last. Although it ended in a Kevin Huber punt, the Bengals chipped off over three minutes of clock.

Twice Cincinnati converted on third down, the biggest with just over four minutes remaining. Denver had two timeouts and the Bengals needed three yards to move the chains.

It was Dalton vs. Super Bowl MVP Von Miller (who had two tackles and a pair of QB hurries on Sunday). Miller took the bait on a read option to Giovani Bernard and Dalton called his own number for a six-yard run that made Vance Joseph burn his second timeout two plays later.

The Bengals gained two first downs on the drive on defensive holding penalties from Denver’s “No Fly Zone” (that has now allowed 10 touchdown passes in the last three weeks).

Cincinnati melted the clock down to the two-minute warning. That forced Brock Osweiler to maneuver a no-huddle offense, which resulted in a second-down sack by Carlos Dunlap and a game-ending incompletion where Osweiler eyed Emmanuel Sanders as soon as he caught the shotgun snap.

Alive but barely breathing

Cincinnati is 4-6. Third down has played a big role in wins and losses, on top of turnovers and bad O-line play. Here’s how the Bengals’ third-down offense has performed in wins and losses.

Wins (4): 23-52 (44.2%)

Losses (6): 17-69 (24.6%)

It’s funny how winning cures everything. Talk of draft picks after the Titans’ loss turned to “in the hunt” conversation in the span of seven days.

Next: The Broncos Plan

Thanks to the AFC’s mediocrity, Cincinnati is a game behind Baltimore (5-5) for the final wild-card spot. A victory over the winless Browns at PBS this Sunday and some help elsewhere (Cowboys>Chargers, Panthers>Jets, Chiefs>Bills, Texans>Ravens) in Week 12 would put Cincinnati in the thick of the things when they host Pittsburgh on Monday night in Week 13.

That’s sure to bring out more talk of draft picks considering the Steelers’ hot streak.

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