We thought it might be easier than the last time we played Pittsburgh as the Steelers were down a starting wide receiver and running back, but we should have known better. The Broncos don't win easy. But they do win.
An unremarkable Offense.
A defense giving up the big play only to stand its ground when it counted.
A kicker making field goal after field goal to give the Broncos even a fighting chance.
And then - in spite of all odds but what has come to define Broncos 2015-16 football - a monstrous defensive play to change momentum, followed by a suddenly awakened offense to do exactly what it had to at exactly the last possible moment it could.
If you had tried to script a playoff game to be a metaphor for the regular season, you couldn't have done any better than the Broncos' 23-16 triumph over the Steelers in the AFC divisional round at Mile High on Sunday.
It was improbable. It was incredible. It was beautiful.
And it was so maddeningly typical.
"That is how it's been all year. We've had ups and downs. We've struggled, but we keep on battling," said running back C.J. Anderson, pointing out the obvious but also the necessary - it takes four quarters to lose ... or win. "That is what it's been all season. We're relentless in there. We fight, we grind and we just keep pushing. We keep fighting every time."
Luckily, the Broncos have been there before - and even expect it.
"It helps playing a lot of close games during the course of the season, starting with the very first one against Baltimore," Peyton Manning said after the game. "That was a dog fight, grinder and went down to the last drive. If you can be in a lot of those games and win those games, it certainly gives you confidence. You know it's going to be a grind down to the wire. That's certainly what it was tonight."
"The #Broncos aren't getting a lot of style points, but they're playing Championship-style football." - Trent Dilfer, who knows about that.— MileHighReport (@MileHighReport) January 18, 2016
In case the Broncos were thinking the game wouldn't be a grind, Steelers' Ben "My arm is barely attached but I'll still try to play" Roethlisberger let everyone in Mile High know just how that game was going to go - through the air.
Despite 18-mph cross winds that had the uprights swaying, Roethlisberger connected with receivers 24 times for 339 yards minus 28 yards from three sacks.
"When we saw them line up in a certain formation, on the headsets it was mentioned, ‘be careful here,'" head coach Gary Kubiak said. "Definitely let us know right there he was going to be able to throw it all day long, but he's a great football player."
It shouldn't have been a surprise but it was most definitely a message, and the Broncos' No. 1 defense struggled in the zone much of the game as Big Ben - apparently not missing Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown as much as we all hoped - made big throw after big throw to Martavis Bryant. Nine times for 154 yards, in fact.
But once again in metaphoric fashion, staying patient kept the Broncos from losing the opportunity to control the game.
"It's been a unique season," Manning said about the obstacles he has faced as well as the offense. "But I think kind of like tonight, we stayed patient tonight. We never really got frustrated. I think that served us well tonight, and it served me well during this season."
Unable to score touchdowns for three quarters, the offense stayed alive behind the amazing leg of Brandon McManus and the reliable stops of the defense - a fact not lost on the quarterback.
"Our defense has been outstanding all season. They have led us to this point. Let's make that clear," Manning said, noting that different players have stepped up at different times all year. "Each game, key defensive players stepped it up, but you have to be a good team to win these playoff games and you have to win as a team. Defense did a great job holding them, and offensively, we did just enough to win."
As the teams exchanged a pair of field goals in the third quarter to start the fourth 13-12 advantage Steelers, the odd plays to lead off the final quarter should have been a sign of what was to come.
Electing to punt on 4th-and-25 from Denver's 39-yard line instead of attempting a field goal in that wind, the Steelers let the Broncos know just what they thought of their chances against Manning and the offense.
They should have known better.
As the offense had to punt on the ensuing drive, the Broncos' defense had been stressing to each other they needed a turnover. It would be Bradley Roby who found - and took with a vengeance - that opportunity, punching the ball out of Fitzgeralad Toussaint's hands as an alert DeMarcus Ware jumped on the ball - and his opportunity to make a huge play.
To fans it was improbable, but to the Broncos, it was just a matter of time.
"We never have any doubt. We've been in too many close games to have any doubt," said Roby, who finished with three tackles and one very timely forced fumble. "If you haven't been in a situation like this all season, then when it happens, you start thinking of the wrong things. For us, we've been here all the time, so it was just that we were going to do our job and make something happen."
And then the offense finally made something happen.
Getting the ball back with 9:52 and down a point, Manning and the offense engineered a near-seven minute drive that defined kicking and screaming (*editor's note: I'd share my tweet with you all about this drive but it might contain an expletive in that mantra that is not family friendly).
1-on-1 with @b_fowler13 on big 3rd-down catch on game winning drive. WATCH: https://t.co/JKb0aLULMU pic.twitter.com/6VBxR2eY2Z— Phil Milani (@philmilani) January 18, 2016
With a huge third-down conversion on a 31-yard pass to Bennie Fowler, the Broncos entered the Steelers' side of the field and kept trudging behind the legs of Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson as No. 22 punched it over the goal line with just over three minutes in the game.
Then a crucial two-point conversion on a Manning to Demaryius Thomas pass put the Broncos in the lead for the first time since leading 3-0 in the first quarter.
"Huge man, huge," said cornerback Aqib Talib of that entire drive. "Roby got that left hand in there and knocked that ball out, and D-Ware again - Johnny on the spot. Offense went and ran that ball down their throat, and Bennie made a big catch. We were able to capitalize on it."
"What that was, was just one hell of a gut check!" - Coach Kubiak https://t.co/jZUdo639dr pic.twitter.com/1yY1CA5TgB— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) January 18, 2016
Buoyed with the lead and re-energized with some rest, the defense took over and a D-Ware sack on 4th-and-5 gave the ball back to the Broncos who once again relied on the golden leg of McManus.
"No matter the yards or the field goals, it's kind of my job out there to make them," said McManus, whose 51-yarder with a huge crosswind just before the half became even more crucial at the end of the game. "So I'm just happy I was able to help the team, and they were able to punch it in for a touchdown and give us a little bit of a lead at the end."
Despite another Steelers' field goal with 19 seconds left to close the gap 23-16, Anderson's not-so-pretty-but-very-effective recovery of the onside kick was the final metaphor in a not-so-pretty win.
"It feels awesome. Just an incredible season, awesome effort today - kind of a microcosm of our season," said tight end Owen Daniels, noting that the late-scoring drive was the culmination of putting the work in all game even with no results. "It wasn't pretty. We struggled offensively, but when it really counted, we found a way to put a great drive together and run the ball. That drive in the fourth quarter was big, but I think the work we put in throughout the game kind of chipped away at them."
Manning finished with 21 completed passes out of 37 attempts and 222 yards. But don't expect the quarterback to blame any incompletions on his receivers.
I think one thing that I've always believed in was that if you have missed throws and you have some dropped passes, you just keep firing," said Manning. "Bennie's catch there versus tight coverage late in the fourth quarter was probably the biggest play of the offensive game."
And you can bet no one on the team was blaming Manning, who guided the team as he needed to. Kubiak said from the get-go it would take a team effort, and it was definitely that.
"We knew eventually the offense would be clicking on all cylinders. They didn't score 45 points, but they scored enough points to win the game," Ware said when asked if there was any tension between the offense and defense. "...We have to win the turnover battle, and we did. Once we did that, Peyton got the ball and really drove it down the field to score points."
The wind was a definite factor, but Anderson said the key was the offense not getting frustrated. After the fumble recovery, the offense knew it had to take advantage and it did.
"We say it every drive, ‘Let's go get some points,' but right there it was, let's go get some points and stop playing around...on that last drive me and Ronnie just kept going and Peyton made some good throws," Anderson said, adding his quarterback played well. "I thought he played great. He put us in some great plays, he saw blitzes coming. We kept him clean for most of the game, so if we can do that we always have a chance."
Patriots fans, "I can't wait to watch Brady beat Manning in the playoffs again" They're 2-2 all time and Brady hasn't beat him in 11 years— NFL Humor (@NFLHumor) January 18, 2016
There will be plenty to learn from this game as the No. 1-seeded Broncos host the defending world champions next week as underdogs in the AFC Championship Game.
But if the season is any indication of how the Broncos will fare, you can bet it will be a fight to the end.
"Our team is resilient,"Hillman noted on the gritty win. "It doesn't matter what the situation is, we're going to continue to fight."