It was boring. It was nauseating. And yet it was completely familiar Sunday afternoon when the Denver Broncos hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers for their AFC Divisional Playoff game. A slew of field goals and missed opportunities riddled  Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium, and for a time it looked like the Broncos were going to squander another top playoff seed and retreat into the offseason. But Peyton Manning and the rest of the talented group pulled it all together just in time, as they have done the entire season.

With a score of 23-16, Manning kneeled the ball down and the clock ran out to the cheers and collective relief of 76,877 Broncos faithful on hand. Denver had played nearly three quarters from behind and there were several moments when it appeared they could do nothing right. But all of the sudden, they strung together a 13-play, 65-yard drive that saved their season and entered them into another AFC Championship.

The Broncos struggled to move the ball the entire day; only due to four impressive Brandon McManus’ field goals, through stiff winds, were they even in the contest. Then the offensive line came alive and blocked from a combination of Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson that would not be denied the end zone. They ran the ball 10 times on the 13-play drive and the Steelers defense was on their heels. After a one-yard Anderson touchdown run on third down, Demaryius Thomas capped score at 20 with a screen pass reception on a two-point conversion to take a much-needed seven-point lead. It was their first lead since 1:22 remained on the clock in the opening quarter. It was ultimately the game-winning drive and only possible due to the only turnover by either team on Sunday afternoon.

With a one-point lead and only 10 minutes left in the game the Steelers had just entered Broncos territory and nothing to that point suggested that they would not come away with more points on their 11th drive of the game. As running back Fitzgerald Toussaint took the handoff and ran off the left tackle, cornerback Bradley Roby caught up with him and knocked the ball loose. It tumbled backwards and outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware jumped on the it. It was the only time either team gave away the ball and it was the difference in the game.

The Steelers mustered 16 points, at times finding big chunks of yardage. A late field goal closed the gap to just seven points but a failed onside kick sealed the victory for Denver. The Steelers had four plays of over 35 yards and eight of 20-plus. The Broncos appeared to play more zone defense and after the game, Roby and others admitted that there were alignment errors that contributed to the visitors’ big plays. Despite the large gains (396 total yards), the Broncos defense only gave up one touchdown in the first quarter that began the Broncos’ lengthy time behind on the score board.

The Broncos offensive woes could be most closely linked to their atrocious third down play. They finished the day 3-of-15 on third down while receiving excellent field positon due to several poor punts by Steelers punter Jordan Berry and two failed fourth down attempts by Pittsburgh. The Broncos drives started, on average, from their own 36-yard line. Three started within Pittsburgh’s 35 yard line but resulted in three field goals, instead of touchdowns.

The Broncos turned it on at just the right time. They had only 218 total yards through three quarters and had been behind in time of possession the entire game until they took 9:49 of the fourth quarter. Manning struggled early to connect with his receivers. Demaryius Thomas, Hillman, Anderson, Emmanuel Sanders and Bennie Fowler all took their turn dropping the ball. The wind undoubtedly played a hand in those struggles, starting the game with a nine mile per hour breeze from the northwest, but it is also a problem that has plagued the team throughout the season.

Manning finished the game with a 74.4 passer rating and 222 yards passing on 21-of-37 attempts. Sanders caught the most of the lot – five for 85 yards – including a crucial first down on the team’s only touchdown drive. Fowler also had a 31-yard reception over the middle of the field on third down during the same critical drive. But once again, it was the rushing attack, that at first struggled to gain traction, that sealed the victory.

Hillman had a hard time getting pasted the Steelers vaunted run stuffers, averaging just 2.4 yards per carry in his 16 runs, but he did have several runs that set up Anderson’s late touchdown. Anderson finished the day with 72 yards on 15 carries with a long of 34 yards which set up a McManus field goal that brought the score to 10-9 Pittsburgh just before half.

The defense started and finished the game strong and were depended on to hold off the Steelers after the Broncos took a 20-13 lead. Ware, Derek Wolfe and Antonio Smith each recorded sacks including one that ended the Steelers’ ensuing drive after going down seven. Aqib Talib also played well, breaking up two pass attempts in the end zone from Ben Roethlisberger. Outside of the forced fumble, Roby had a rough day tackling and Chris Harris Jr. was visibly ineffective due to his shoulder injury.

Roethlisberger outplayed Manning on paper, throwing for 339 yards on 24 completions of 37 attempts. Martavis Bryant caught a game-high nine of those passes for 154 yards. The Broncos held the Steelers running backs to a collective 45 yards but a 40-yard reverse by Bryant set up their only touchdown on the day, a Toussaint one-yard run.

The Broncos won in the fashion they have become accustomed to, with dramatics and most all all, determination. Last season, the Broncos folded under the pressure of the Indianapolis Colts’ will. Sunday they had the same opportunity and they decided they were not finished yet. It certainly was not pretty but it displayed the change many were hoping to see in the Broncos. Adjustments need to be made, people need to play better but the fact is they will have another shot at a Super Bowl berth next Sunday at home. The reigning world champion New England Patriots will come to town and grit alone will not be enough to make it to Santa Clara. Grit and greatness will be needed in equal measure.

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