In a game that turned out to be a defensive struggle, the Denver Broncos came up victorious. The Denver defense held off the Pittsburgh Steelers 23-16, to advance to the AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots. Peyton Manning overcame a shaky start to pull out the dramatic victory.
The Broncos offense scored first, thanks to a 42-yard punt return by Omar Bolden, after the Steelers first series went nowhere. The Broncos had a first down at the Steelers' 30, reached the 10 and stopped short there as Brandon McManus kicked a 28-yard field goal to stake Denver to a 3-0 lead.
The Steelers' second drive was more productive. Sammie Coats took a short pass and turned it into a 37-yard gain to Denver's 41. The Steelers managed to reach the Broncos 32-yard line. But on fourth-and-one, Mike Tomlin opted not to try a 50-yard field goal with the wind to Boswell's back in the high altitude. Instead, Roethlisberger went for it all to Wheaton who dropped it in the end zone.
Later, a horrible 27-yard punt by Jordan Berry gave the Broncos the ball at the Steelers' 31-yard line. Although Manning & Co. managed just eight yards, they scored again on a 41-yard field goal by McManus for a 6-0 lead.
Both teams traded field goals and the first half ended 10-9.
Chris Boswell hit his second field goal of the game, with 9:30 left in the third quarter, to give Pittsburgh a 13-9 lead. But Manning led the Broncos down the field to match the score. Broncos stay close at 13-12.
The Broncos earned the No. 1 seed because of their defense. That defense wound up making the biggest plays to send Denver to the AFC Championship. Bradley Roby's forced fumble of Fitzgerald Toussaint helped turn the game around in the fourth quarter. And DeMarcus Ware pressured Ben Roethlisberger on back-to-back plays to kill Pittsburgh's attempt at a game-tying drive in the fourth quarter.
Manning's day was not spectacular. But coming back from an injury, he did what was needed to get the Broncos to the next level. His numbers were very pedestrian, per ESPN. He completed only 56.8 percent of his passes and ended with a 74.4 passer rating.
"I think our defense is what's guiding us. Let's be clear."Manning was able to make the big passes when he needed them. The heavy burden was on the running game. The run was used exclusively on the game winning drive. The Broncos have transformed into a different type of Manning-led team. But the formula is working.
If the script seemed familiar, it's the same one that the Broncos used before Manning was out. The Broncos defense kept the game close and eventually caused a big turnover. That would set the stage for a big comeback for Manning and the Denver offense.
The Broncos have made this their signature style and work it to perfection. The Steelers were able to move the ball against the Broncos' defense but couldn't finish. Toussaint's fumble killed what may have been the drive that sealed a win for Pittsburgh. Instead, the Broncos were able to engineer a 13-play 65-yard drive that ate 6:52 off the clock and move on to the AFC Championship Game.
[Feature Photo by Joe Mahoney/Associated Press]