Denver Broncos free safety Justin Simmons watches during the second half of an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Dec. 19, 2021, in Denver. The Bengals won 15-10. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
Denver Broncos free safety Justin Simmons watches during the second half of an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Dec. 19, 2021, in Denver. The Bengals won 15-10. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — The Denver Broncos are preparing backup quarterback Drew Lock for his first start of the season at Las Vegas next weekend after Teddy Bridgewater was knocked unconscious Sunday against the Bengals, carted off the field and hospitalized overnight.

Bridgewater was discharged Monday morning and is in the league’s concussion protocol for the second time this season.

“I just spoke to him a few minutes ago,’’ coach Vic Fangio said. “He’s been released, he’s home, he’s resting comfortably. He sounded a lot better this morning than he did last night. Last night he sounded real tired.”

Fangio added that it’s “highly unlikely he plays this week.” He also dismissed the notion of starting third-string QB Brett Rypien, who began quarantining last week as a precaution with the rapid rise in COVID-19 cases across the NFL.

Battered behind a porous offensive line Sunday, Bridgewater scrambled for the first down marker late in the third quarter of Denver’s 15-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. Linebacker Joe Bachie squared up to stop him and when they collided, Bridgewater went airborne and was hit from the side by defensive tackle B.J. Hill just as he faceplanted into the ground.

Bridgewater lay motionless, his arms bent awkwardly.

The crowd quieted as Bridgewater and Bachie lay on the ground and their teammates gathered around, some kneeling. As Bachie was helped off a minute later with a leg injury and ruled out, Bridgewater came to as he was rolled over and strapped onto a body board to be carted off the field.

As he was being transported via ambulance to a hospital, the Broncos said he had movement in his arms and legs and would be evaluated for a head injury.

“Relieved that he’s doing well,” Fangio said. “On my Catholic background, I said a quick Hail Mary and and Our Father for him during that time.”

Bridgewater was replaced by former starter Lock, who finished the drive with a 25-yard touchdown toss to Tim Patrick that briefly put Denver ahead 10-9. After Cincinnati regained the lead with its only TD drive of the day, Lock had the Broncos threatening again when he committed his second turnover of the season on a goal-to-go situation in relief of Bridgewater.

Against the Ravens in October, he threw an end zone interception with 3 seconds left, which allowed Baltimore to run one more play and extend its streak of 100-yard rushing games, much to Fangio’s chagrin.

With their season possibly on the line Sunday, the Broncos (7-7) put a key decision in Lock’s hands on second-and-goal from the Cincinnati 9. The old read option, which Tim Tebow brought back to the NFL a decade ago.

Instead of handing the ball off as he should have, Lock pulled the ball back from running back Javonte Williams' belly and was immediately face to face with unblocked defensive end Khalid Kareem, who snatched the ball out of Lock's hands.

Kareem's colossal play, officially a fumble recovery, helped the Bengals (8-6) surge into a first-place tie with Baltimore atop the AFC North while damaging the Broncos’ playoff hopes.

Lock ended up completing 6 of 12 passes for 88 yards with a sack, a touchdown and a turnover.

“I hope after a week’s worth of practice that he’ll be much more comfortable and much more efficient in that operation,” Fangio said. “His accuracy will be better. Everything will be better.”

WHAT’S WORKING

Denver’s defense. Although they got no takeaways, the Broncos held Joe Burrow to 157 air yards, kept Joe Mixon out of the end zone, held rookie star Ja’Marr Chase to one catch for 3 yards and Tee Higgins to two catches for 23 yards.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

The offense, which wasted a dominant defensive performance like it hadn’t in a decade — ever since Kyle Orton returned to Denver and led Kansas City to a 7-3 win over Tebow and the Broncos to close out the 2011 season. Of course, the Broncos backed into the playoffs anyway at 8-8 that year and Tebow’s best play as a pro came one week later when he found Demaryius Thomas for an 80-yard TD on the first play of overtime against Pittsburgh.

It’s unlikely a playoff appearance awaits Denver this year after Lock both handed the Bengals the win and took the Broncos' playoff hopes out of their own hands.

STOCK UP

Fangio, for another brilliant defensive game plan that throttled another young quarterback.

STOCK DOWN

Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, for once again stubbornly sticking to his favorite diet of three wide receiver sets when his O-line kept folding so quickly that plays couldn't develop downfield.

KEY NUMBER

3 - Broncos safety Justin Simmons got his third career sack and his first since 2017.

WHAT’S NEXT

The Broncos visit the Raiders (6-7), whose game at Cleveland was pushed back from last Saturday to Monday because of the Browns’ COVID-19 outbreak. Fangio is 1-4 against Las Vegas, including a 34-24 home loss this season when the Raiders were supposedly reeling from Jon Gruden’s unceremonious exit.

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