DENVER (AP) – This would’ve been no way to send Peyton Manning into the offseason.
Seven dropped passes.
A whiplash-inducing, blindside hit from an unblocked blitzer.
A flurry of field goals and a defense that gave up big chunks of yards too often.
All that ugliness got set aside thanks to the sort of comeback that has defined the Denver Broncos all season.
They rallied for a 23-16 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday to move themselves and their 39-year-old quarterback one win away from the Super Bowl.
The 17th edition of Manning-Brady is set for next Sunday. But before that, Manning will savor a win in Denver’s 17th game of the season – one every bit as rough, rugged and up in the air as any of the previous 16.
“This was a dog fight, a grinder and went down to the last drive,” Manning said. “If you can be in a lot of those games and win those games, it certainly gives you confidence and, hey, it’s playoff football.”
The Broncos (13-4) improved to 10-3 on the season in games decided by seven or less.
This one turned when Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby punched the ball out of Pittsburgh running back Fitz Toussaint’s hands with 9:52 left.
Until then, Denver had settled for four field goals and trailed 13-12.
After the day’s only turnover, the Broncos put together their only touchdown drive – 13 plays, 65 yards over 6:52, capped by a 1-yard run by C.J. Anderson. A 2-point conversion made it 20-13.
“Bottom line, you lose the turnover battle in a hostile environment against good people and it’s going to cost you,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “And it cost us today.”
Making his first start since Nov. 15, Manning finished 21 for 37 for 222 yards, with no touchdowns or interceptions. The totals might have been better were it not for seven drops from his receivers.
Next up, the Patriots, who fell 30-24 in overtime to Denver earlier this season, when Brock Osweiler was playing in place of Manning while he nursed his injured foot.
“They’re one of the best teams in the AFC,” Broncos linebacker Von Miller said. “Let’s go out and play and see who wants the Super Bowl.”
Things we learned from Sunday’s game:
CLASSIC MATCHUP: The Patriots opened as a 3 1/2-point favorite over Denver, despite playing on the road. This will be a rematch from the AFC title game of two years ago, when Broncos receiver Wes Welker leveled then-Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib, knocking him out of the game and opening things up in the secondary. Manning threw for 400 yards in a 26-16 win. The teams are different now.
“Our defense is guiding us. Let’s make that clear. They played great all season,” Manning said. “They were dominant today against a high-powered offense.”
STEPPING UP: With no Antonio Brown (concussion), Ben Roethlisberger found another big-play receiver in Martavis Bryant, who caught nine passes for 154 yards.
“The plan for me was to stay focused – stay focused on my job and go out and handle my business,” said Bryant, who also had two carries for 40 yards.
Bryant may have been so open because Denver’s defense was in zone a lot, with Pro Bowl cornerback Chris Harris Jr. dealing with a sore shoulder.
“We were able to move the ball, and then we just … we kind of get down there and hurt ourselves,” Roethlisberger said. “Part of that was because they’re the No. 1 defense in the world.”
BIG HIT: The Broncos defense may have bent a few times, but was never upended. The same can’t be said of their defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
The 68-year-old coach was taken out by Bryant after the Steelers receiver got pushed out of bounds on the Denver sideline. No damage done, though.
Phillips popped back up quickly and slapped his back side.
Head coach Gary Kubiak never even saw it.
“I can assure you he’s fine,” Kubiak said. “He’s in there hollering. I just left him, so he’s all right.”
CAN’T-MISS McMANUS: Broncos kicker Brandon McManus went from missing kicks in five consecutive games down the stretch to making history Sunday: His 5-for-5 performance in tricky crosswinds helped Denver come away with points when the offense kept stalling.
“During warmups, we went out there and it was a pretty calm day – a nice, tempered day. We come out 7 minutes before kickoff and I see a 30 mph crosswind come in over the Rockies,” McManus said. “So, I wasn’t nervous at the time, but I knew it would make for an exciting day.”
McManus is the seventh kicker to make all five of his field goal tries in a playoff game.
BUTTERFINGER BRONCOS: Denver’s biggest bugaboo this season has been dropped passes, and that trend continued, with Demaryius Thomas, C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman all letting passes bounce off their hands.
Emmanuel Sanders and Bennie Fowler each had two drops. Fowler made up for it with his 31-yard catch on third-and-12 to set up Denver’s only touchdown.
“A couple of those were the wind, but as a receiver we should have still made those plays,” Thomas said.
By EDDIE PELLS, AP National Writer
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