If you’re not the sort of person who cottons to the hype machine that accompanies matchups between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, this would be a good week to catch up on that novel you’ve been planning to write.
It will be Manning and the Broncos against Brady and the Patriots in Denver next Sunday after the Broncos scored 14 straight points in the second half on their way to a 23-16 victory over the Steelers. The matchup for the AFC title will certainly feature a different Manning than we’ve seen in most of the 16 previous games featuring the two quarterbacks, but the Broncos were able to survive just long enough to take advantage of a big Steelers mistake.
A week after a Jeremy Hill fumble opened the door to a Steelers win in Cincinnati, running back Fitzgerald Toussaint’s fourth quarter fumble gave the Broncos a chance to shake off a dismal offensive day in time to win the game. Manning hit Bennie Fowler for 31 yards on a key third down and C.J. Anderson scored the only Denver touchdown of the day to give the Broncos their first lead since the first quarter.
It held up when DeMarcus Ware sacked Ben Roethlisberger on fourth down of the next drive. Brandon McManus and Chris Boswell would trade field goals, but Boswell’s onside kick was recovered by the Broncos to end the game. Roethlisberger was sacked three times, but his right arm didn’t seem too diminished by his shoulder injury as he went 24-of-37 for 339 yards. Martavis Bryant had nine catches for 154 yards and a 40-yard run as he did his best to cover for the absences of Antonio Brown and DeAngelo Williams, but the fumble and some poor special teams play in the first half helped the Broncos to points that the Steelers couldn’t match.
Manning ended the day 21-of-37 for 222 yards. His numbers would have been better if not for several drops by his receivers, although Manning also got the benefit of a questionable call by the officials that he did not give himself up when he dropped to the ground to avoid a Steelers defender and then stood up to deliver a pass to Emmanuel Sanders for 34 yards. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin argued that Manning gave himself up, but that’s not reviewable so the play was allowed to stand. The Broncos would go on to punt on that drive, which lessened the impact of what surely would have been a major talking point of the week had Manning’s possum impression done more to swing the game.
There were none of the interceptions that plagued Manning in the regular season, but the offense was just as ineffective through three quarters as it had been at any other point this year. That left it to the defense to make a big play and Bradley Roby provided it when he separated Toussaint from the ball. That’s been the formula that Denver rode to the top seed in the AFC and one more round of it will send the Broncos to the Super Bowl.