Denver Broncos free safety Bradley Roby, right, forces a fumble by Pittsburgh Steelers running back Fitzgerald Toussaint, left, during the second half in an NFL football divisional playoff game, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, in Denver.
The Steelers reached back for a game-winning drive for which they didn’t have the energy. Miller's sack on fourth down with less than two minutes left all but sealed Denver's 23-16 AFC divisional playoff win.
No Antonio Brown. No Le'Veon Bell or DeAngelo Williams, neither of whom would have fumbled midway in the fourth quarter to give Denver all the momentum. Two starting offensive linemen had been absent all year. Just too much to overcome.
Yes, Fitz Toussaint did the fumbling, but he’s not to blame for this loss. Too many Steelers were put in tough spots offensively for the franchise to sustain what became a thrilling ride into the playoffs the past two months
The Steelers poured everything they had onto the Paul Brown Stadium turf last week. There was nothing left. This was a fun year, but it was destined to end based on circumstance.
What it means: What a back-breaking drive by Denver late in the game. The Steelers' defense had played brilliantly all game, but when it needed to stop the run late, Denver ran the ball right through the Steelers’ teeth. A 13-play drive capped by a 1-yard C.J. Anderson touchdown with 3 minutes left included nine runs and chewed nearly 7 minutes of clock. The Steelers were asked to do a lot defensively and it held up for three quarters. It wasn’t enough.
What were they thinking?:Markus Wheaton should not be returning punts anymore. He muffed two of them in replace of the injured Antonio Brown, but he got bailed out both times. In the third quarter, Wheaton tried to field a punt after the bounce. A Denver gunner knocked the ball loose inside the Broncos’ 10-yard line. The ball went out of bounds. Early in the fourth, the punt bounced off Wheaton’s hands and rolled into the end zone, with teammate Ross Cockrell recovering. The Steelers actually gained 20-plus yards because of the touchback.
One reason to get excited: Despite Denver’s late score, the defense has come alive in the past month, giving up just three touchdowns in the past three games. High draft picks are validating their status. Last week, it was Ryan Shazier. This week, Jarvis Jones and Stephon Tuitt were excellent. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler called timely blitzes from corner William Gay and safety Will Allen on separate third downs to stall two Broncos drives.
One reason for concern: After nearly 200 rushing/receiving yards combined for running backs Jordan Todman and Toussaint in the AFC wild card, the duo combined for 45 rushing yards on 17 carries and a brutal Toussaint fumble with 9:52 left to erase a promising drive and set up Denver’s late touchdown. The fumble offset Toussaint’s 1-yard touchdown run with 1:22 in the first quarter.
Fantasy watch: Bryant has been back to his explosive ways in the playoffs, surpassing 100 receiving yards as the primary target while adding 40 yards rushing. He might have been held by Aqib Talib in the end zone when jumping for a Roethlisberger pass. He’s been a must-play in fantasy.
Game ball: Bryant was phenomenal. He accepted the challenge of becoming the No. 1 receiver with Brown absent. He finished with 154 receiving yards on nine catches.
Ouch: Linebacker Arthur Moats left the game with a pectoral muscle injury and did not return.
Chasing history: Roethlisberger surpassed Terry Bradshaw’s 3,833 passing yards for the most in franchise playoff history. James Harrison has 8.5 career postseason sacks with Pittsburgh. He’s chasing LaMarr Woodley for the franchise record (11).