Coming into Sunday's game between the Steelers and Broncos at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field, there were two NFL truisms at play. First, if you give Pittsburgh's passing game any window of opportunity, they'll take it, torch you with it, and ask you how you liked it later. Second, Denver's defense has allowed the fewest windows to the passing games they've faced all season—that's why they came into this game first in pass defense and first in overall defense in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics. But Pittsburgh's aerial game, led by Ben Roethlisberger and receiver Antonio Brown, has what it takes to put any defense out of commission, no matter how stout it may be.
That was the narrative in preparation for what was supposed to be a humdinger of an AFC matchup, and neither team disappointed. The Steelers scored 24 consecutive points in the second half to shock and overwhelm a Broncos team that had looked like world-beaters in the first 30 minutes, and Broncos quarterback Brock Osweiler went from looking like the future of his franchise to a kid who just realized that it was past midnight. Osweiler ripped up the Steelers' defense and their multiple coverage breakdowns in the first half, amassing 152 passing yards in the first quarter alone. Ex-Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders shredded his former team in that first half. with 163 yards from scrimmage—the most of his career throughout an entire game. It was the most any Denver player had put up in a first half since at least 1991, and the Broncos' 27–13 halftime lead seemed fairly definitive. Not bad for a team that hadn't scored an offensive touchdown in seven quarters prior to the game.
And then, sadly for Denver, the second half started and everything fell apart. It's tough to say if the injury he suffered to his left (non-throwing) shoulder affected his game, but after completing 14 of 18 passes in the first half for three touchdowns and adding another on the ground, Osweiler was far less effective as the game went on. He managed just 7 completions in 26 attempts in the second half, though there were several key drops from his receivers. As the game progressed and the Steelers kept scoring, Osweiler looked more and more overwhelmed. He threw a killer interception to linebacker Ryan Shazier with 4:28 left in the game, and his final seven passes were incomplete. The Broncos didn't even get back in Pittsburgh territory in the second half until there was about three minutes left in the game.
"As a team, we probably played as good at times as we could tonight and then not so good at times," Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak said. "This is a great football team we played. We needed to do it all night long, and we didn’t. Offensively in the second half we didn’t make any of the plays we made in the first half. We had some opportunities and didn’t get it done. It’s very disappointing. That’s this business. You'd better be built for four quarters, not three."
On this day, they weren't. And that was not a good thing for Denver, because after going 19-of-28 for 194 yards, no touchdowns and a pick in the first half, Roethlisberger caught fire, throwing three touchdowns in the second half, and seeing his interception with just over two minutes left in the game rendered irrelevant by Denver's offensive incompetence. Roethlisberger hit Brown for two second-half touchdowns, and on both of those scores, Brown beat Denver cornerback Chris Harris, who hadn't given up a touchdown since Week 12 of the 2013 season. Brown's last score, a 23-yarder from Roethlisberger with 3:34 remaining, was the game-winner.
“We just stayed together,” Brown told NBCs Carolyn Manno after the game. “We knew it wasn't going to be an easy task. We were going up against a great team, and we knew we had to stay together and fight to the finish.”
As for the last touchdown, when Brown positioned himself perfectly between Harris and another Denver defender, it was a case of doing what most receivers can't—beating Denver's usually perfectly-placed aggressive coverage.
“It was man coverage,” he said. “It was the perfect route, we ran it in practice and got some timing on it, Ben hit it right in stride, and it was the perfect call.”
With Peyton Manning returning to practice in recent days, it's going to be easy to castigate Osweiler for his feeble second half, and wonder if Manning can be put back in the picture sooner than later. But that's a tougher call than many might think—Osweiler hasn't been lights-out, but he's proven that he runs Kubiak's offense better than Manning could, and Manning was a fairly epic disaster at times before multiple injuries finally took him out of the equation.
"Until I see the tape, obviously I won’t know what really happened in the second half," Osweiler said. "You can feel you weren’t moving the ball and you weren’t in the rhythm. In the first half, Coach really preached to us all week long: Each individual guy do your job. Do your job and it is going to result in good things. That’s what happened in the first half. Until I can see the tape, I won’t know what happened in the second half. Obviously it needs to be better, it needs to be fixed and as a group, we will get it fixed."
At 10–4, and hoping to maintain position at the top of the AFC, Kubiak's team has that and other key things to think about in the coming weeks. They end their season against the Bengals and Chargers, both at home, and they are still in an “anything can happen” mode when it comes to how they'll be seeded.
The Steelers, who now stand at 9–5, are playing with a bit of house money—they're currently the sixth seed in the conference, and they will end their season against the Ravens and Browns, two decimated divisional opponents. With three straight wins, and five victories in their last six games, it's easy to place them higher on the pole than the Broncos if one was basing that call on the results of one game.
"We were kicking our own butt, in terms of blowing calls and things of that nature," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin concluded. "To the guys’ credit, they came together, they settled down. We didn’t change much, to be honest with you, we just executed it better. Maybe a third down call or two, but we just played markedly better in the second half, from a details standpoint. That allowed us to win those possession downs and get off the field. Obviously, our offense did what they do. A good win for us. We don’t take it for granted and hopefully, succeeding in the face of adversity strengthens us for the battles that await."
The Broncos, who once seemed a lead-pipe lock to have the playoffs go through Denver, have now lost their last two games, and better hope these results present nothing more than an aberration.