The Denver Broncos nearly dropped the ball in the Divisional Round Sunday, literally and figuratively. Seven dropped passes from at least five different targets had Peyton Manning and the Broncos offense flustered; it was all Denver's defense and special teams could do to keep the Broncos in the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Yet, as they so often have in 2015, the Broncos came alive in the 4th quarter. After trailing for much of the low-scoring game, Bradley Roby forced a fumble that DeMarcus Ware recovered. Manning then led a 13-play, 65-yard, 6:52 drive for the Broncos' only touchdown of the game and a Denver 23-16 victory. Manning and the Broncos scored 14 unanswered points in the second half.
The Broncos shook off the first-playoff-game shakes that haunted them in 2012 and 2014. It was hardly a dominating performance in all phases, but as we've seen all year, it was enough to keep the game close. And that was enough for these Kicking and Screaming Broncos to win.
Despite a week of reports about Ben Roethlisberger's injured throwing shoulder, the Steelers didn't shy away from going deep, as evidenced by the first play from scrimmage. Roethlisberger again tested Denver's depth early on their second drive on a 4th and 1; both throws fell incomplete. Denver's defense forced back-to-back punts, while a nice punt return from Omar Bolden set up the Broncos for a field goal in between. Later, Kayvon Webster's phenomenal punt coverage play, a 3-and-out from the Steelers, and a shanked Pittsburgh punt gave the Broncos terrific field position again. However, Denver was unable to capitalize on either possession that started in Steelers territory, and settled for a Broncos 6-0 lead.
The lead wouldn't last long, even as the Steelers had 80 yards to go. Steelers WR Martavis Bryant took a reverse 40 yards on the next series that set up the Steelers for paydirt. Fitzgerald Touissant finished the drive on the next two plays, and the Steelers needed all of five plays to take the lead back from the Broncos. Steelers take a 7-6 lead.
The Steelers would take that lead into the 2nd quarter as the Broncos started driving. Manning hit Demaryius Thomas then Virgil Green then Cody Latimer for first downs, but the drive stalled near midfield. The Steelers took advantage with another big play off a blown coverage, taking a Steelers 10-6 lead.
From there, the Broncos offense got uglier. Drop after drop - Bennie Fowler, Emmanuel Sanders, and C.J. Anderson all contributed to Manning's declining completion percentage. The Broncos failed to convert a 4th and 3 after Sanders' catch was jarred by a Steelers defender, and things were looking dire.
Peyton might be a little off, but his receivers are more so.— Rich Eisen (@richeisen) January 17, 2016
Manning is 8-for-17, but, you know, six drops.— Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) January 17, 2016
The Broncos offense struggled all the way to the half, converting its first third down with only a minute to play. Then Peyton Manning and company completely stalled as they approached halftime, with a sack on 2nd down and a Manning fumble on 3rd down (which he recovered) nearly dooming Denver's chances for points before halftime.
Then, from 51 yards, with the wind swirling but at his back, Brandon McManus nailed perhaps the kick of the year. The Broncos cut the Steelers lead to 10-9 at halftime.
Peyton and company looked rusty out of halftime, which was the unfortunate par for the course. After a quick punt, Ben Roethlisberger and Martavis Bryant continued their abuse of the Broncos. However, Aqib Talib held strong in the end zone to force the Steelers to settle fora field goal. Steelers 13, Broncos 9.
Aqib Talib looking good as far as Pylon Cam can tell... pic.twitter.com/mZXZi6l4I2— NFLonCBS (@NFLonCBS) January 17, 2016
Denver's defense continued to hold firm as the offense struggled to figure itself out. Now it was Manning, not his receivers, who was clearly off, with a wobbly football and a bad throw on 3rd and 11 getting the better of the future Hall of Famer. A couple of sacks didn't help, either.
CJ Anderson meets James Harrison in the hole. #PITvsDEN pic.twitter.com/Li4J4afUC6— SiriusXM NFL Radio (@SiriusXMNFL) January 17, 2016
The Broncos cut the lead to 13-12 off another field goal, this one a 41-yarder by Brandon McManus, who was a perfect 4 for 4. The Steelers then decided to punt rather than attempt a 51-yard field goal, clearly not threatened by the Broncos offense. In some ways they were right; Manning's self-sack below was Denver's biggest offensive play to that point.
Peyton goes down, Peyton gets up, Peyton completes pass. Does not appear to be touched on the 2nd view pic.twitter.com/6eVqjZS3PU— The Cauldron (@TheCauldron) January 18, 2016
It wouldn't be the biggest offensive play of the game, though. First, the defense needed to make something happen, and they did just that. Bradley Roby forced a fumble with a mean defensive-back punch, and DeMarcus Ware was Johnny-on-the-spot to give Denver the only takeaway of the game. Broncos football.
Then Denver did enough to save its season. A bullet from Manning to Bennie Fowler on 3rd and 12 kept the Broncos moving and proved to be the difference-maker. Several runs later, Denver was finally - FINALLY - in the end zone when C.J. Anderson lowered his shoulders to plow into the end zone. Manning found Demaryius Thomas for the two-point conversion on a beautiful play call, and the Broncos were up 20-13 with three minutes to play.
The defense went to work, sacking Ben Roethlisberger on 4th down. A few runs later, Brandon McManus nailed a 45-yard field goal to make it a two-score game with the Broncos up 23-13. In the game's waning minute, the Steelers managed to complete Step 1 of the comeback, nailing a 47-yard field goal and setting up an onside kick/hail mary situation with 0:19 to play. Step 2