Cool-hand Cutler

Jason Cole

While Denver now controls its playoff destiny, the 8-7 Bengals need help.

The heartbreaking subplot of this game is that the Bengals botched their chance to tie the score at 24-24 when long snapper Brad St. Louis' snap was too far from holder Kyle Larson to handle cleanly. The ball went through Larson's hands and Denver safety John Lynch eventually covered it to seal the win. It was at least the second bad snap of the season for St. Louis.

But this game never should have come to this scenario. As one member of the Bengals staff said after the game, "We deserved that after the way we played."

Or as Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer said: "The truth is that we shouldn't have been in that situation."

With the season on the line, the Bengals wilted. Specifically, each of their top offensive stars had at least one major mistake. Wide receiver Chad Johnson and running back Rudi Johnson each had fumbles that set up one score for Denver and ended another drive at the Broncos' 24-yard line, respectively.

Quarterback Carson Palmer was worse. He had two interceptions, including one in the end zone when he overthrew a wide open T.J. Houshmandzadeh and another on a pass he forced to Chad Johnson. Palmer also fumbled as he was sacked in the first quarter, costing the Bengals another chance at a score.

Finally, Palmer simply didn't come up with the big plays that are required of great quarterbacks. On three consecutive drives in the second half, Palmer failed to convert key third-and-long situations, helping to put the Bengals in a hole.

Not good for a former No. 1 overall pick in his fourth season. Palmer finished 21 of 40 for 209 yards. In essence, Palmer was outplayed by Cutler, who was making his fourth start.

– Jason Cole

DENVER – Rookie quarterback Jay Cutler struck the pose of disaffected youth Sunday after leading the Denver Broncos to their biggest win of the season.

Cutler barely smiled in his postgame press conference. In fact, when asked if he ever before had a 99-yard scoring drive and what he'll remember someday from the one he engineered during a 24-23 win over the Cincinnati Bengals in a game with playoff implications, Cutler showed all the passion of Johnny Chan after drawing an inside straight on the river card.

Cutler said he probably had a similar drive. He just couldn't recall the moment.

"More than likely, and I probably won't remember this one in 10 years either," Cutler said.

Or as the most nonchalant teenager might say, "Yeah, like, whatever."

In football-crazy Denver, where the mile-high altitude only begins to speak to the fans' lofty expectations, such events firmly are woven into the tapestry of the city. With Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway, there was The Drive – the 98-yard, no-timeout touchdown drive that beat Cleveland in the 1987 playoffs. Like Cutler's drive, Elway's came on a field dusted with snow, adding to the classic feel.

Still, Cutler's drive doesn't measure up to that one by Elway. Not yet, at least.

Or as Denver wide receiver Rod Smith said when asked if it was fair to draw any comparisons between the two rifle-armed passers: "Don't do that. That's not fair. That's not fair to either of them."

Furthermore, Cutler tried to downplay it by saying, "I didn't really do anything."

Don't buy that part. Cutler completed three of five passes for 60 yards on the third-quarter drive, including a key conversion on third-and-11. The drive gave Denver a 21-17 lead, and the Broncos followed that with another drive for a field goal in the fourth.

Cutler's play does indicate that coach Mike Shanahan finally may have found the answer at quarterback to solve the woes he's had at that position since Elway retired.

"Quarterbacks are going to grow every time they take a snap," said Shanahan, whose decision to switch from veteran Jake Plummer to Cutler looks better and better by the week. Cutler has two touchdown passes in each of his first four games, making him the first rookie to do so since Dan Marino in 1983.

"There are going to be some growing pains along the line. You watch your guy and how he handles himself in practice, how he handles himself in meetings and you kind of watch the way that he operates and you've just got to be to the next level," Shanahan said. "You can see today he made some mistakes. But when he was on the line, he made some big plays."

Appropriately, Shanahan's Christmas Eve present came courtesy of a young man raised in Santa Claus, Ind.

"From the first minute he got here, he's still never seemed overwhelmed," said Denver safety John Lynch, a 14-year veteran. "With rookies, you always wonder how they are going to react. But it hasn't seemed to get to him at any point."

Said Broncos tight end Stephen Alexander: "He's different. He's not like other young guys. He just never gets too up or too down about anything."

The victory put Denver in control of the top wild-card spot in the AFC playoffs. At this point, the Broncos (9-6) would be the No. 5 seed and travel to New England for a first-round game.