By Mark Schiff
Good thing they don’t count style points on the scoreboard.
On a surprisingly mild January afternoon at Sports Authority field at Mile High, the Broncos defeated the Steelers 23-16 in their divisional round playoff opener the same way they got through many of their opponents in the regular season: Big plays by the defense late in the game coupled with just enough offense. For a Steelers team missing its All-Pro wide receiver and top running back, Pittsburgh proved surprisingly frisky on offense, but the Broncos finished when it counted, as C.J. Anderson’s touchdown with thee minutes left proved the difference in a hard-fought win.
As the Broncos turn their attention to the visiting Patriots and a trip to the Super Bowl, here are your Divisional Round Team Grades.
With Peyton Manning finally back at the helm of Denver’s offense, the Broncos picked right up where they let down. Yes, Manning made it through the entire game without throwing an interception for the first time all season; but thanks to a ridiculous number of drops and a running game that only worked in fits and starts, Denver’s offense didn’t find its rhythm until the game-deciding drive.
But what a drive. Facing a critical 3rd and 12 on their own side of the field, Manning hit Bennie Fowler across the middle, and the receiver shook off a tackle to make a 31-yard gain. Although Denver managed just 324 yards of offense and went an atrocious 3-15 on third down in the game, their 13-play, nearly seven-minute go-ahead drive was yet another exhibition of the team’s focus in the face of pressure.
As in their first meeting, Denver’s defense surrendered a huge number of big plays to the Steelers who amassed an alarming 396 yards. Yet Denver’s defense largely held strong, as they limited Pittsburgh to just one touchdown and three field goals. Though Denver had its share of blown coverages, limiting the Steelers explosive offense to 16 points is an impressive achievement no matter their injuries.
And it was Denver’s defense that again came up with a game-changing play late in the game when Bradley Roby stripped Fitzgerald Toussaint for a fumble recovered by DeMarcus Ware. It was the game’s only turnover and the momentum change was instrumental to the outcome, as the offense went on to score the final touchdown.
Special Teams: A
Denver’s special teams unit was the team’s best on Sunday. Kayvon Webster was brilliant in punt coverage, as he forced a fumble that was recovered by Pittsburgh. Making his return after sitting out several games, Omar Bolden had an excellent punt return on Denver’s first possession that set them up for three points. And on a day when the wind was gusty and volatile, kicker Brandon McManus hit kicks of 28, 41, 51, 41 and 45 yards, an impressive performance that should calm doubts caused by his diminishing returns as the season wore on. Special teams can be overlooked at times; on Sunday, their contribution to Denver’s win was evident.
Drops are unfair to pin on a coach, but Denver’s offense had too many plays that went for nothing. The defense also appeared to struggle schematically, as players routinely seemed to find themselves out of position. Still, their patient strategy on both sides of the ball paid off and despite a failed fourth down attempt in the second quarter, Gary Kubiak’s game-management decisions were sound.
It may not have been pretty, or particularly convincing, but a win’s a win at this stage of the season. And if Denver can get two more, it would be a beautiful finish, no matter how ugly the games.
We’ll know soon enough how it all plays out. Denver takes on New England next Sunday from Sports Authority Field at Mile High at 1:05pm, right here on CBS4.
Mark Schiff is a freelance writer and music journalist for AXS.com. In 2013, his coverage of the Seattle Seahawks ended in heartbreak when they defeated the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. Now covering his beloved hometown team, his knowledge and passion for pro football has resulted in multiple fantasy football championships. Find him on Twitter at @mihilites.