Defense wins championships.
However, that same defense failed to come up big in our 14th top game of 2015. A game where their inexperienced, backup quarterback spotted them a 27-13 lead at the half.
Heading into halftime with a 14-point lead and that defense, Denver had to be feeling good.
Well, except for Osweiler, who suffered a shoulder injury before half. Aside from Osweiler's injury though (which could have contributed to his subpar second frame -- 8-of-26 passing with an interception), there were a few other factors at play here before the final whistle blew:
1) Denver was on the road
2) Ben Roethlisberger
3) Antonio Brown
Playing at home can have a huge impact on a pass rush with crowd noise impacting offensive protection and audible calls. Denver certainly could have used that boost here. It's hard enough to bring down Ben Roethlisberger, but when you put him in front of his home crowd, good luck.
And that brings us to Brown. The 5-foot-10, sixth-round pick who just so happens to be the best wide receiver in the NFL right now. He notched 16 catches for 189 yards and two touchdowns in this contest, looking virtually uncoverable in the process. One of said touchdowns came against Pro Bowl cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who hadn't allowed a receiving touchdown in almost two years. This was Brown's third of what would end up being four 180-plus yard receiving days this season -- the most ever by a receiver in a single season.
Brown caught the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter, and then a crucial third-and-5 conversion with 1:30 left on the clock to ice the game. Denver had spent its last timeout prior to the play, and would have had a shot at tying the game were it not for Brown.
So while defense certainly does win championships, on this day, in this game, it was offense that proved victorious.
What if ...
With 5:32 remaining in the third quarter, Denver was clinging to a 27-20 lead when Jordan Norwood picked up a punt that had been touched by the Steelers and returned it all the way for a touchdown. It was a heads-up play by Norwood, and completely legal by NFL rules ... except the Broncos offense had already started stepping on the field, thinking the ball had been down. Illegal substitution. Doh! Of course, it also appeared that Shamarko Thomas, the defender who tried to down the ball, might have had a foot out anyway. The Denver drive ended as a three-and-out, but it makes you wonder how a big play like that return could have impacted the game had it actually counted.
From the Box Score
While Brown stole the show with his 189 receiving yards, Emmanuel Sanders didn't go quietly into the night, as he posted 181 of his own. Two receivers going for over 180 yards in the same game is a pretty rare feat in the NFL (though it's obviously happened more frequently of late). Here are the only other times this has happened since 1960:
» 2015, Week 3: A.J. Green, 227 yards; Steve Smith, 186 yards
» 2012, Week 11: Andre Johnson, 273 yards; Justin Blackmon, 236 yards
» 2007, Week 3: Kevin Curtis, 221 yards; Roy Williams, 204 yards
» 2004, Week 3: Javon Walker, 198 yards, Reggie Wayne, 184 yards
» 1972, Week 2: Rich Caster, 204 yards; Eddie Ball, 197 yards
» 1966, Week 10: Bob Hayes, 246 yards; Charley Taylor, 199 yards
Why This Game is No. 14
This game encapsulated so many storylines from the 2015 season and wrapped them up in a classic, down-to-the-wire finish. We saw both the good and bad of Brock Osweiler, the power of the Pittsburgh offense when it is at (or near) full health/potential, and how important playing at home can be when it comes to defensive football. And when it comes to late-season drama and playoff implications, well, this one truly had it all. Losing set Denver up to potentially miss the playoffs, while it pushed the Steelers more firmly into the Wild Card hunt. These teams would meet again in the postseason, but without Antonio Brown, the Steelers offense was unable to muster enough explosion to get past the stingy Denver defense playing at home.