Get ready for another Manning-Brady matchup with a Super Bowl spot on the line. Peyton Manning and the Broncos offense came up big on a 13-play fourth quarter drive to beat the Steelers 23-16 Sunday. Here's what we learned:
1. The Broncos earned the No. 1 seed because of their defense. And their defense wound up making the biggest plays to send Denver to the AFC Championship. Bradley Roby's forced fumble of Fitzgerald Toussaint helped turn the game around in the fourth quarter. And DeMarcus Ware pressured Ben Roethlisberger on back-to-back plays to kill Pittsburgh's attempt at a game-tying drive in the fourth quarter.
"I think our defense is what's guiding us. Let's be clear," Manning said after the game.
2. Peyton Manning (222 yards on 37 attempts) did not have a vintage performance. But he avoided any big mistakes, survived at least five drops from his receivers, and made the biggest throw of the game when he absolutely needed it. He's a game manager. Facing a third-and-12 with 8:37 left, Manning threaded the needle on a seam pass up the middle to Bennie Fowler for a 31-yard gain. Denver's running game did most of the work rest of the way on the game-winning drive. This is a different sort of Manning-led team, but the formula is working.
3. This was the exact recipe that the Broncos used early in the season. Their defense kept an ugly Broncos passing game alive, forced a huge turnover in the fourth quarter, and then Manning came up with some fourth-quarter heroics. If nothing else, the Broncos are used to these sort of games. They have made big comebacks throughout the year and have a lot of confidence in their ability to close out tight finishes. One of those comebacks, of course, came against their AFC title game foe -- the Patriots.
"I've never been apart of a team that handles adversity so well," Von Miller said after the game.
4. The Steelers will be kicking themselves for not taking advantage of opportunities. They moved the ball well, with 396 yards against the No. 1 defense in football. But they couldn't finish drives. Their second drive of the game finished with an attempted 30-yard touchdown kill shot on fourth-and-1. Big Ben, who had plenty of arm strength all day, was late on the throw. A penalty took them out of field-goal range in one fourth-quarter drive. Aqib Talib broke up a pass at the goal line to force a third-quarter field goal. And Toussaint's fumble killed a promising drive, setting up Manning's heroics.
5. Martavis Bryant led the Steelers with 154 yards receiving. He also led the Steelers with 40 rushing yards. Pittsburgh will be wondering "What if?" all offseason when it comes to Antonio Brown's concussion. The Steelers looked one offensive piece short for much of the day. Roethlisberger was too often not on the same page with Markus Wheaton, and they couldn't get a consistent ground game going. Still, an emotional Mike Tomlin didn't want to talk about the missing players Sunday. They had a fourth-quarter lead and the ball in Broncos territory. They had this game.
6. C.J. Anderson might have earned a bigger share of the Broncos' backfield with this performance. He busted free for a key 34-yard run and generally ran tougher than Ronnie Hillman. Anderson finished out the game after Hillman struggled early, gaining only 38 yards on 16 carries.
7. The Steelers' defense finished the season playing at a much higher level than early in the season. James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons and Jarvis Jones were all standouts Sunday. But they weren't good enough to carry this team on their own. Pittsburgh's special teams and offense let them down. Denver scored six cheap points early essentially off special teams.