Almost did it without Brown
Not a lot of NFL playoff games start Jan. 17 and end Jan. 9, but this one most certainly did, and the pity of it was that the Pittsburgh Steelers and their world of worshipers had to wait eight whole days to find out they couldn’t beat the Broncos without Antonio Brown.
So on a windy, sun-swept Colorado Sunday afternoon when they simply could not pull one big, decisive play out of their battered-to-tatters hat, the Steelers watched a season die in the shaky hands of the great Peyton Manning, the oldest player on the field.
An exhaustive, Manningengineered, 13-play drive that swallowed almost seven minutes of fourth-quarter clock ended with Denver’s only touchdown, but let’s not get too far off point here. This one was essentially over the minute Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict savaged the Steelers’ MVP eight days previous, when a late-game concussion took out Brown.
“Everybody stepped out for (Brown). Everybody gave it their all,” said Martavis Bryant, the Steelers’ second-best wide receiver. “Things just didn’t go our way. They had a great game plan — they were playing 20 yards back. What more can we do?”
A couple of things actually did go the Steelers’ way as Ben Roethlisberger tried to get the ball deep without the best big-play receiver in the game, but it only served to illuminate his problem. Sure, Darrius Heyward-Bey got behind Denver’s secondary for 58 yards in the first half, and sure, Bryant gained 52 on a play early in the second, but both happened because the Broncos blew the coverage, and the combined result was only six Steelers points.
Other than those two plays, the longest of Roethlisberger’s 24 completions went for 37 yards, but that was on a flip to Sammie Coates that didn’t travel more than 6 yards in the air.
“We know (Brown) is our top dog and everything, but we gave ourselves a chance,” said Coates, the rookie forced by circumstance into a uniform for the first time since November. “We had a chance to drive down the field because we have one of the best quarterbacks in the game, but we just couldn’t get it done.”
You sort of suspected they couldn’t, and with that was extended an uncomfortable little stretch of Pittsburgh postseason history. Zooming out momentarily to look at the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins, you’ll see that Pittsburgh has dropped nine of its past 10 postseason appointments.
But while you’re chewing on that, chew on this as well: The Steelers probably deserved to win Sunday. Against the best defense in the NFL, and the best pass defense, they slashed 396 total yards out of a unit that yields an average of 283. They got 311 net passing yards against a defense with four Pro Bowlers that usually allows 199 yards through the air.
They had Manning flummoxed and frustrated, partly from their defensive alignments and partly from his receivers dropping just about every other throw, but even at that, the Broncos probably would not have found their way into next Sunday’s AFC championship without him.