Going into the Divisional Round, it looked like everything was lining up for the Denver Broncos. They were getting to face a Pittsburgh team that would be without starting running back DeAngelo Williams, wide receiver Antonio Brown and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was playing with a shoulder injury himself. But when the game was actually played on Sunday, the Broncos actually struggled. The defense had some issues with the plethora of weapons the Steelers had at wide receiver and the offense just could not kick it into another gear. But one big play was enough to sway the momentum Denver’s way. Leading 13-12 with a little under 10 minutes left in the game, the Steelers were driving to add to their lead. Steelers’ running back Fitzgerald Toussaint ran the football around the left side of the offensive line on a 2nd and four from the Broncos’ 34 yard line. He seemingly was going to get the first down for the Steelers and move the chains, but Denver’s Bradley Roby made a fantastic play to turn the tide. Roby fought off a block from Pittsburgh wide receiver Darius Heyward-Bey to hit Toussaint and dislodge the football. The result was a fumble recovery by the Broncos. Denver would turn that turnover and drive down the field for a touchdown. The Broncos added a two-point conversion on top of the touchdown as the Broncos took a lead they would never relinquish. The final score was 23-16 and with that, the Broncos are headed to the Conference championship game to play the New England Patriots.
The Broncos were solid defensively in spurts in this game. The one interesting move they made in this one was backing off their cornerbacks to start the game. Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips remembered how Ben Roethlisberger torched them in the second half of their regular season matchup when they played tight man-to-man coverage and wanted to switch it up. The changeup Phillips threw out there was inconsistent in its effectiveness. The Steelers were able to give the Broncos more issues because they had more space to operate in. The Broncos defense eventually mixed up how they were going to line up during the game and that essentially helped them win the football game. The mixup of coverages helped the Broncos get pressure on Big Ben down the stretch. You could notice as the game went on, Big Ben was trying to find people that were breaking open down the field. Part of the sack issue falls on Big Ben because he held the ball waiting on his receivers to get open. But you have to give credit where credit is due. The pressure they are able to create can come from any angle and when the coverages are mixed up, that gives that Denver defensive front more time to get to the quarterback. And with the likes of Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware and Derek Wolfe up front, that can give any quarterback nightmares. They sure gave Big Ben fits when they got to him.
Offensively, it was a grind for the Broncos in this one. They just could not get it going the way they wanted to. Part of the reason they could not do so was the running game. With Gary Kubiak there as head coach, the emphasis on the stretch run game was brought in. And over the season, they have had times where the running game was effective and times where it was non-existent. In this game, the running game was just like it was all season. It showed up at times and at other times, it disappeared. But on the lead-taking drive in the fourth after the turnover, the combination of Ronnie Hillman and CJ Anderson came through for Denver. They totaled 31 yards together on that drive and Anderson finished the drive with a 1 yard plunge. These two may not be consistent, but they were enough of a threat in the second half that it gave the Denver offense some sort of threat to help the passing game. The other thing that kept the Denver offense sputtering was the drops they had. They had the Pittsburgh defense beat numerous times. And if they would have caught the basketball, then they would have done much more damage with the passing game. But Manning was not getting much help from his receivers and it nearly cost them the game. Usually in the cold-weather games, it falls on Manning and his performance in the eyes of many. But in this one, he still went 21/37 despite the numerous drops that hit wide receivers square in their hands. The Denver receivers would have gotten a lot of unwanted attention for how bad they were if it would not have been for the big catch by wide receiver Bennie Fowler on the lead-taking drive for 31 yards.
The Denver Broncos now move on and welcome the New England Patriots to Denver next season. And once again, we will hear the Tom Brady vs Peyton Manning talk. But for Denver, it’s about much more than stopping Tom Brady. They have to clean up the offense and defense for them to make it where they want to go. It will be interesting to see what adjustments they make to try and keep up with the Patriots.