BRONCOS 23, STEELERS 16
Steelers' record: 11-7
Steelers' all-time playoff record: 34-23
Series record (including playoffs): Broncos lead, 19-11-1
All-time playoff series record: Broncos lead, 5-3
On the surface, Steelers vs. Broncos in the Divisional Round of the AFC Playoffs would conjure images of a classic battle between franchise quarterbacks – Ben Roethlisberger vs. Peyton Manning. That battle still will be fought, but it figured to be more about grit and toughness, because both players were not at their physical best. Manning was limited by a foot injury that had forced him out of the lineup in mid-November and a 37-year-old right arm that was a real reason why he didn't reclaim the starting job when the foot healed sufficiently.
In the Broncos regular season finale, Manning came off the bench to quarterback the team to the win over the Chargers that secured the No. 1 seed in the AFC Playoffs, but the offensive production came from the running of C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman, who combined for 30 carries for 212 yards and two touchdowns.
As for Roethlisberger, he sustained a right shoulder injury during the Wild Card Round win in Cincinnati, but he willed himself back onto the field to direct the game-winning field goal drive while completing 5-of-7 for 40 yards – including a 12-yard pitch-and-catch to Antonio Brown to convert a fourth-and-3. After being a limited participant in practice on both Wednesday and Thursday – working primarily on the running game – Roethlisberger had a much more typical practice day on Friday, and as the team made final preparations for the trip to Denver the belief was that Roethlisberger would start.
Would the shoulder allow him to finish? That was a question to be answered by the pass protection, because Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware are the Broncos' outside pass rushers who combined for 18.5 sacks during the regular season. But in December at Heinz Field, Miller finished with no tackles, no sacks, and only one pressure on the passer, and Ware was shut out across the statistical board.
HOW THE STORYLINE PLAYED OUT
Even with both starting quarterbacks at less than their physical best, the position they play in their sport is too important to be bit performers in the overall drama.
Game action from the Steelers' AFC Divisional Playoff game against the Broncos.
One of the most critical jobs for a quarterback in the playoffs is the protection of the football, and both Ben Roethlisberger and Peyton Manning did their jobs in that area. Roethlisberger attempted 37 passes, as did Manning, and neither defense was able to come up with an interception, even though both units were somewhat known for splash plays during the regular season.
Manning was blessed with better field position, with two of Denver's 14 offensive possessions starting in Steelers territory, and only one starting inside their own 20-yard line. The Steelers had nine of their 13 possessions begin at their own 20-yard line or worse.
Neither offense was particular efficient on third downs, with the Steelers at 2-for-12 (17 percent) and 0-for-1 on fourth down, while the Broncos converted 3-of-15 (20 percent) on third down and 0-for-1 on fourth down.
Where it can be said the game was lost by the Steelers was in the turnover battle – Pittsburgh was minus-1 in turnover ratio, with one lost fumble and no takeaways – and the offense was just 1-for-3 in the red zone, which served to negate the Steelers' edge in total offense, 396 total net yards to 324 for the Broncos.
FIRST HALF STAT THAT STANDS OUT
In the first quarter, the Steelers had 133 yards of offense, the most allowed by a Denver defense since Nov. 16, 2014 when St. Louis had 138.
The Steelers had a 13-12 lead midway through the fourth quarter, and it seemed as though they were driving to extend that lead. Ben Roethlisberger completed a 22-yard pass to Jesse James, and then on the next play it was a 13-yard pass to Markus Wheaton that set up a first down at the Denver 40-yard line. After a 6-yard pass to Darrius Heyward-Bey, Fitz Toussaint took a handoff and gained 3 yards before having the ball popped out by safety Bradley Roby, and the fumble was recovered by DeMarcus Ware at the Denver 35-yard line. Thirteen plays later, the Broncos had the touchdown and a two-point conversion that gave them a 20-13 lead with three minutes remaining in the game.