The Denver Post
December 20, 2015
Emmanuel Sanders (10) of the Denver Broncos sits on the turf after failing to make a fourth-down catch on the Broncos' final possession during the second half of the Steelers' 34-27 win at Heinz Field. The Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the Denver Broncos on Dec. 20, 2015. (AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post)
In the Pitt and the Pendulum of Sunday evening, the Broncos were terrific in the first half but tormented souls in the second half.
And in a game of big, bad, brilliant and mind-boggling plays, the Pittsburgh Steelers ultimately, but just barely, won out.
The Broncos led 27-10 at one point in the first half (converting eight consecutive third downs) in what seemed to be Steal City, but wouldn't score again in the misery of the second half (one third- and fourth-down conversion). Heinz 57, Steelers 34, Broncos 27.
As a result, the 10-4 Broncos have faded further from the No. 1 seed in the conference and are barely clinging to No. 1 in the AFC West.
This one was the most perplexing loss of the season. In the second half, the Broncos had:
• A 71-yard punt return that would have provided them with a 34-20 advantage in the third quarter. However, the play was nullified because the offensive unit was penalized for prematurely running onto the field.
• A great escape from a potential sack of Brock Osweiler was ruined by his poorly aimed pass that was intercepted, leading to the Steelers' game-winning score.
• Miserable defense by a street-vendor safety (again) that allowed Pittsburgh to take its first lead of the game with 3:29 left on a grab by Antonio Brown (who had 16 receptions for 189 yards).
• The usual critical failure on a third down by Demaryius Thomas.
• An interception of a Ben Roethlisberger pass at the Steelers' 41-yard line when Pittsburgh should have been running down the clock just before the two-minute warning.
• Four consecutive incomplete passes thrown by Osweiler, the last three to Emmanuel Sanders and the cold night by three rivers was over.
Gary Kubiak's stone-cold solid game plan was shredded to pieces by his offensive players in another scoreless second half.
"As a team, we probably played as good at times as we could," the Broncos coach said, "and then not so good at times. ... 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. ... You'd better be built for four quarters, not three."
Four plays were most pivotal.
The Broncos' forgotten wide receiver, Jordan Norwood, who was inserted for a punt return instead of Sanders, scooped up the ball (already touched by a Steeler) at the sideline, scampered to the other side of the field and ran unscathed to the goal. But the Broncos were flagged for having too many men on the field.
"Some of our offensive linemen, who thought the play was over, started to jog," Kubiak said. "They were about 40 or 50 yards behind the ball. (The Steelers) also had guys running on the field. ... I've been told that (Norwood) was out of bounds, anyway, so I don't know."
The second play was the Osweiler interception. With less than five minutes to go, and the score tied, and the ball at the Denver 27-yard line, Osweiler was under duress from Pittburgh's Stephon Tuitt but stepped out of the hold and threw toward Sanders. Ryan Shazier picked off the pass at the 37.
Three plays later Roethlisberger flung the ball to Brown. Cornerback Chris Harris got little help from safety Josh Bush. Harris was livid. The week before, the Raiders scored the winning touchdown when safety Shiloh Keo blew coverage. Sunday, the Broncos were without starting safeties Darian Stewart and T.J. Ward. David Bruton played hurt and Omar Bolden was inactive.
The final play occurred when Roethlisberger tossed a stupid pass that was intercepted by linebacker Brandon Marshall in Pittsburgh territory just before the two-minute warning.
But Osweiler and his receivers didn't connect, and the Broncos were finished.
"Until I see the tape, I won't really know what happened in the second half," said Osweiler, who suffered an injury to his left shoulder, of unknown extent, during the first half.
We don't need to see the tape. The Broncos' offense was at its apex in the first half, in the pits the second half.
Now, a quarterback quandary exists again.
The pendulum swings.
Woody Paige: email@example.com or @woodypaige