Brandon Stokely caught a tipped pass and outran Cincinnati's shocked defenders for an 87-yard touchdown with 11 seconds left Sunday, giving the Broncos a 12-7 victory over a Bengals team that thought it had this one in the pocket.
A weird deflection stole it away.
After Cedric Benson's 1-yard touchdown run put Cincinnati ahead 7-6 with 38 seconds left, Kyle Orton — in line to shoulder the blame for a Denver loss — threw a desperate pass into a crowd at the sideline, hoping that Brandon Marshall would somehow come down with it.
Marshall never got close. Cornerback Leon Hall batted the ball in the air, and the carom went right into the arms of Stokely, who was behind the defense and had a clear path to the end zone. He ran sideways for a few steps to eat up time before finally stepping into the end zone.
Bengals defenders stopped and dropped their heads, unable to fathom the wacky way they'd lost another game. It will go down in team lore along with the time they failed to run out the clock and let San Francisco's Joe Montana throw a winning touchdown pass to Jerry Rice on the game's final play in 1987.
A half-hour after it ended, a fan in an orange Rey Maualuga jersey sat alone in the otherwise vacated section of green seats behind the very end zone, staring at the field, trying to comprehend what had just happened.
There was no explaining it.
Orton put the Broncos in line for a kick-to-the-stomach loss in coach Josh McDaniels' regular season debut. Nursing a dislocated index finger on his right hand, he did just enough to get the Broncos a 6-0 lead heading into the closing minutes.
Then, he had a brain-freeze moment on a warm afternoon, taking a sack that pushed Denver out of range for what could have been a third and clinching field goal by Matt Prater, who had connected from 48 and 50 yards.
Still, the odds seemed to be in Denver's favor. The Bengals had only one first down in the second half against an overhauled defense that was better than expected. Shut down all day, Carson Palmer was perfect in the clutch, completing all six passes on a 91-yard drive to Benson's touchdown run.
When Eddie Royal slipped down on the kickoff return at the 13-yard line, the Broncos seemed to be finished. Orton's first pass was nearly intercepted. The second one was deflected — perfectly, the Broncos would say.
Orton finished 17-of-28 for 243 yards, wearing a glove for the first time to help him grip the ball. His throws lacked their usual oomph, but were mostly on-target.
None landed better than the last one.
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