Peyton Manning rides defense to wild win over Steelers: 13 things to know
The Broncos defense set the table for a dramatic finish by Peyton Manning and the Broncos offense in Denver's 23-16 divisional round playoff win on Sunday.
Peyton Manning couldn't convert a third down, his receivers couldn't catch a pass and for the better part of three quarters, the Denver Broncos ' offense looked ugly, which is probably why Manning will likely remember Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers as one of the most beautiful wins of his career.
Thanks in large part to a defense that was able to keep Denver in the game, the Broncos topped the injury-depleted Steelers 23-16 to advance to the AFC Championship for the second time in three years.
Manning only directed one touchdown drive against the Steelers, but that was all the Broncos needed.
The game-winning drive was only possible because of a huge play made by the Broncos' defense. With Pittsburgh driving and looking to extend its 13-12 lead late in the fourth quarter, Broncos corner Bradley Roby stripped Steelers running back Fitzgerald Toussaint and defensive end DeMarcus Ware quickly pounced on the ball.
Fitzgerald Toussaint fumble recovered by Ware. pic.twitter.com/Zojr1km97B— MarcusD (@_MarcusD_) January 18, 2016
"Down in the fourth quarter, down in the homestretch, that was a great play by our defense," Manning told CBS sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson after the game.
After the turnover, Manning put together one of his most impressive offensive drives of the year. With 9:52 left in the game, Manning proceeded to lead the Broncos on a 13-play, 65-yard scoring drive that took 6:52 off the clock.
The drive was vintage Manning: He made sure to use as much of the clock as possible and he made sure it ended in a touchdown. The biggest play of the drive came when Manning hit Bennie Fowler for a 31-yard gain on third-and-12.
If Fowler doesn't make the catch, then the Broncos would've been force to punt from their own 33-yard line. The marathon drive eventually ended with a 1-yard touchdown run by running back C.J. Anderson .
Manning didn't put up huge numbers (21 of 37, 222 yards) and the Broncos' offense struggled for most of the game, but Manning didn't care because the offense came through when it mattered.
"The best thing we did, we stayed patient all game," Manning said. "We didn't force anything, we didn't give them any short fields. When we needed it, we got that big drive and we got that big touchdown that really put us up."
Arguably, the biggest thing Manning did in the game was not turn the ball over. Manning finished second in the NFL in interceptions this season, despite the fact that he only played in nine games.
The Manning who turned the ball over 17 times wasn't under center against Pittsburgh though. Against the Steelers, the Broncos got a patient Manning who knew his defense could help win the game if he played it safe.
"[Our defense was] dominant today against a high-powered offense," Manning said. "Our defense answered the challenge, I'm honored to be a part of it."
Speaking of the Broncos defense, here's 11 more things to know about Denver's 23-16 win, starting with the defense:
2. Bradley Roby saves the game: The Broncos better make sure that cornerback Bradley Roby gets a game ball because he saved the game for Denver. With 10 minutes to play in the fourth quarter, the Steelers were driving and looking to add to their 13-12 lead when Roby's big play happened.
On a second-and-4 from Denver's 34, Ben Roethlisberger handed the ball off to Touissaint, who was about to get the first down, but that didn't happen because Roby (29) somehow managed to strip him.
DeMarcus Ware quickly jumped on the ball and the Broncos took over at their own 35-yard line. If Toussaint doesn't fumble, the Steelers likely would've gotten at least a field goal out of the drive.
For Steelers fans, the Toussaint fumble was a complete 180 from what happened during the wild-card game against Cincinnati. During last week's playoff game, Bengals running back Jeremy Hill coughed up the ball late in the fourth quarter, which allowed the Steelers to pull off the comeback win. This time around, an inopportune fumble killed the Steelers' chances.
3. Brandon McManus was Brandon McMagic: With winds swirling at almost 20 mph in Denver on Sunday, kicking could have been an adventure, but it wasn't thanks to the strong right leg of Brandon McManus. The Broncos' kicker tied a playoff record by nailing five field goals in the game on five attempts.
McManus' most impressive kick was probably his final one.
With the Broncos leading 20-13, coach Gary Kubiak called on his kicker to try a 45-yard field goal, which wasn't a given in the windy conditions. If McManus misses, the Steelers would've taken over at Denver's 35-yard line with a chance to tie the game. Instead, McManus knocked the kick through with 52 seconds left to give Denver a 23-13 lead.
McManus also hit from 28-, 41-, 51- and 41-yards in the game. After the game, McManus said that the conditions on Sunday were the worst he's ever kicked in.
4. Manning can thank the thermometer for Sunday's win. The official temperature at kickoff on Sunday was 43 degrees, which was great news for Peyton Manning because doesn't play well when it's much colder than that. Manning has a playoff career record of 0-5 when the kickoff temperature is 40 degrees or colder. Maybe someone in Denver warmed up the thermometer to give Manning a psychological edge. Whatever happened though, Manning didn't have to play in cold weather and the Broncos won.
5. Broncos had butterfingers: Manning' stats weren't pretty in the game, but that wasn't completely his fault. Broncos receivers combined to drop a total of seven passes, which is a ridiculous number when you consider that the most the team had dropped in a game all season was three. Manning probably could've thrown for almost 300 yards if his receivers didn't have a case of butterfingers.
6. Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips gets run over: Not only did the Broncos defense get run over during the first half on Sunday, but so did their defensive coordinator. During the second quarter, Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was taken out by Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant .
On the play, Bryant caught a short pass and then headed for the sideline, where he was pushed out of bounds by two Broncos defenders. Bryant's momentum took him straight toward Phillips and let's just say the 68-year-old Phillips didn't win the collision.
Wade Phillips take a hard hit on the sideline pic.twitter.com/vdGQsAVp7n— MarcusD (@_MarcusD_) January 17, 2016
The good news for the Broncos is that Phillips wasn't sent to concussion protocol, he stayed on the sideline after the hit and kept on coaching.
7. Ugly day for third down conversions: If the Steelers try and blame their loss on their lack of third down conversions, that won't work because the Broncos were horrible, too. Pittsburgh only converted two of 12 third downs in the game, that total includes a third-and-2 in the first half and a third-and-5 from Denver's 10-yard line on a drive that led to a field goal.
Things were just as ugly for the Broncos, who made three of 15 third down conversions. Two of those conversions came on Denver's game-winning touchdown drive.
8. Big Ben has been big time in the postseason: Despite the fact that he was missing a few weapons, Ben Roethlisberger still managed to throw for 339 yards in the game. That number gives Big Ben 4,052 career playoff passing yards, which moves him into No. 1 on the Steelers all-time list. Roethlisberger passed Terry Bradshaw, who threw for 3,833 playoff yards during his Steelers career.
The 339-yard showing was impressive, especially since Roethlisberger was without his favorite target: Antonio Brown . The performance was also impressive because Big Ben was playing with an injured right shoulder that kept him from throwing it more than 10 yards down field in the fourth quarter against the Bengals.
Roethlisberger proved that his arm wouldn't be a problem on Pittsburgh's first play from scrimmage when he launched an incomplete pass that traveled about 55 yards in the air.
9. Marvelous Martavis Bryant. Roethlisberger didn't have Brown, but he did have Martavis Bryant, who was easily the most impressive offensive player in the game. The Steelers asked Bryant to do everything, and that's pretty much what he did.
Not only did the receiver haul in nine passes for 154 yards, but he also ran the ball twice for 40 yards, which all came one play -- a reverse that you can see below.
10. What was Tomlin thinking? Mike Tomlin is known for thinking outside the box, but sometimes he goes way too far outside the box and then outthinks himself while he's out there.
On the Steelers' first possession of the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh was faced with a fourth-and-20 from Denver's 34-yard line. With the Steelers leading 13-12 and the Broncos' offense having been quiet for most of the day, a field goal seemed like the best choice.
Sure, the wind was bad, but kicker Chris Boswell had already hit from 43-yards in the game. Tomlin decided to punt it though and that decision backfired because the punt went into the end zone for a touchback.
Ironically, the Steelers ended up trying a 47-yard field goal with under a minute left from the same spot on the field. Boswell nailed that one and if he had been given a chance to try the 51-yarder, that could've changed the game.
After the loss, Tomlin refused to answer any questions about the field goal, or lack of one.
Tomlin declines to answer question about not kicking FGs earlier in the game. #Steelers— David Todd (@DavidMTodd) January 18, 2016
11. Burfict should check his mail: The Broncos might want to send a gift card or a playoff share to Vontaze Burfict because the Bengals linebacker played just as big a part in Sunday's game as almost any defensive player who actually played. Burfict gave Antonio Brown his concussion, which kept Brown from playing against Denver. Burfict also injured Roethlisberger, which meant the Broncos got to face a hobbled Big Beg instead of a healthy only.
12. Goodell at the game. Peyton Manning's big win was watched by NFL Comissioner Roger Goodell, who was on hand at Sports Authority Field.
The big question is: Where will Goodell go next week?
The commissioner hasn't attended a Patriots game all season, which we can probably assume has everything to do with Deflategate. If Goodell shows up, it will be the first time he's watched a New England game in person since Super Bowl 49.
13. Get ready for Brady-Manning XVII. You have one week to put the kids to bed -- yes, they need to be tucked in early for this one -- and get mentally prepared for Brady-Manning XVII.
After the Broncos beat the Patriots in November, it seemed unlikely that Manning and Tom Brady would ever meet on the field again. However, it's definitely going to happen and the winner is going to get a trip to Super Bowl 50.
Although Brady leads the all-time series 11-5, it should be noted that their postseason head-to-head record is 2-2, and in each of those games, the home team has won.
Early advantage, Manning?
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