Al­most did it with­out Brown

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Gene Col­lier

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.

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