Labriola On

Labriola on loss to the Broncos

DENVER – There will come a time in the not-too-distant future when it'll become possible to put this 2015 Steelers season in perspective, to come to appreciate the qualities these players and coaches displayed over the course of a six-month journey that began in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania and ended in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

Soon. Just not now. Not yet. The loss that eliminated them is too recent, the emotions too raw, the missed opportunity still too real to allow for perspective.

Today, that 23-16 final score from Sports Authority Field carries with it the dual disappointment of a season ended and an unfulfilled sense of what could have been.

When the Divisional Round of these playoffs began on Saturday afternoon, the Steelers were one of eight teams left in a field to be whittled down over the next fortnight to the two qualifiers for Super Bowl 50. And even with a roster depleted by injuries and a quarterback using guts to make up for an injured throwing shoulder, these Steelers were the equal of any other team in the field.

That's where the unfulfilled sense of what could have been creeps back into the consciousness, because this sure was looking like a year when a trip to New England wasn't necessarily a death blow to a team's championship dreams, where Peyton Manning was playing like a 39-year-old man, where Aaron Rodgers' Packers were nothing special, and where Carolina and Arizona presented rosters that were talented but yet burdened by the kind of playoff inexperience that's so often lethal in late-January football.

There was little argument that the Steelers had the necessary pedigree, but what was in doubt was whether their roster could continue to absorb injuries to important individuals and still turn out enough of whatever was required for the team to win and advance. Against the Broncos, they would be facing a team they had defeated rather handily less than a month ago in Pittsburgh, but this time it would be without Antonio Brown and the 16 catches and two touchdowns he personally had contributed to that victory.

In the run-up to the game, much interest was being devoted to the teams' respective strategies, as in how the Steelers planned to compensate for Brown watching the game from Pittsburgh and how the Broncos would attempt to compensate for Manning looking like an old man.

But as so often happens, the game came down to some of the most basic fundamentals of the sport, the kinds of things that have been separating winners from losers on the gridiron dating back to football's infancy. Turnovers and field position.

Throughout this six-month odyssey, the Steelers came to embrace and embody the mantra of "next man up," but against the Broncos they came to feel Brown's absence, but not in the area that seemed most obvious. Even without the best receiver in football, the Steelers passing attack still churned out over 300 net yards, with Martavis Bryant doing a fair statistical impersonation of Brown by finishing with nine catches for 154 yards, while adding 40 more on a couple of end-arounds.

But where Brown's absence hurt the Steelers was on punt returns, because Markus Wheaton never showed an affinity for when to fair-catch the ball while also having way too much difficulty with the catching-the-ball component of the job. This was a contributing factor in the Steelers having to start nine of their 13 possessions at or inside their own 20-yard line.

And even though the Steelers turned the ball over just one time, that became a minus-1 in turnover ratio as a result of no takeaways by the defense, and the timing of the lost fumble by Fitz Toussaint couldn't have been worse.

Game action from the Steelers' AFC Divisional Playoff game against the Broncos.

It was the within the first five minutes of the fourth quarter, and the Steelers held a 13-12 lead that would've been more if not for red zone failures that were somewhat predictable what with the offense being without Brown and down to its Nos. 4 and 5 running backs, but being without Brown and down to their Nos. 4 and 5 running backs was the Steelers' reality here on Sunday.

Having lucked their way out of another gaffe by Wheaton in an attempt at fielding a punt, the Steelers started this offensive possession at their 25-yard line because Stephon Tuitt recovered the muff in the end zone to combine with an illegal motion penalty on Denver during the exchange.

Anyway, the first play was a 22-yard gain on a nice, safe pass to Jesse James, and that was followed by a 13-yard completion to Wheaton and then another for 6 yards to Darrius Heyward-Bey. On second-and-4 from the Denver 34-yard line, Toussaint gained 3 yards before Bradley Roby slapped the ball free for DeMarcus Ware to recover at the 35-yard line.

At the precise moment of the turnover, the Steelers were moving smartly down the field to add at least another field goal that would have extended their lead to 16-12, and they appeared to be in the process of imposing their will on a Denver defense that spent most of 2015 as the NFL's best. And a four-point lead would have put the pressure on Manning to engineer a touchdown drive for an offense that had yet been able to do that in this game.

Almost seven minutes of game time after Ware's recovery, the Broncos did in fact cross the goal line for the first time, and the Steelers' season was on a direct path to being over.

It was Vince Lombardi who once said, "The measure of who we are is what we do with what we have." Maybe some day soon, these Steelers will be able to look back favorably on their 2015 season within the context of those words. Right now, though, it just hurts.

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