Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will face off at least one more time in the postseason after the Denver Broncos advanced to the AFC Championship Game thanks to a 23-16 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers at Sports Authority Field on Sunday.
Running back C.J. Anderson provided the decisive score, running the ball into the end zone from one yard out with three minutes left in the game. Denver then completed the two-point conversion to take a seven-point lead.
Steelers running back Fitzgerald Toussaint will be the villain in the eyes of many fans back in Pittsburgh. His fumble at the Denver 31-yard line set the Broncos up with good field position and a chance to win the game.
Football Outsiders' Scott Kacsmar pointed out that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has seen his backfield mates cough up the ball often in the playoffs:
Ben wondering why RB fumbles are such a big thing in his playoff career. Bettis (3x really) Mendenhall in the SB J.Hill Toussaint— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) January 18, 2016
Pittsburgh had the ball two more times to try to drive for the game-tying or potentially even game-winning score, but as the New York Daily News' Frank Isola joked, the Steelers' chances of moving the ball against the Broncos defense were slim:
The Steelers need Vontaze Burfict to do something really dumb right now.— Frank Isola (@FisolaNYDN) January 18, 2016
Denver kicker Brandon McManus tacked on a field goal for good measure with 53 seconds remaining. After Pittsburgh kicker Chris Boswell closed the gap to one score with 19 seconds left, Pittsburgh failed to recover an onside kick, handing the victory to the Broncos.
Manning finished the game 21-of-37 for 222 yards, which put him in rarefied air, per OptaJack:
7,000 - Peyton Manning is now the second quarterback in #NFL history with 7,000 postseason passing yards. Tom Brady was first. Showdown.— OptaJack (@OptaJack) January 18, 2016
Now, another game against Brady looms. Bleacher Report provided the head-to-head numbers between the two legends:
Denver fans shouldn't overlook Anderson's contributions Sunday. He carried the ball 15 times for 72 yards. McManus' leg also proved to be pivotal as he connected on all five of his field-goal attempts.
According to Football Outsiders, the Broncos owned the best defense in the league during the regular season, which helped mask the team's issues at quarterback. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, was without Antonio Brown, who suffered a concussion last week, and was relying on Roethlisberger, who suffered a separated shoulder in the Wild Card Round.
Despite those hurdles, Roethlisberger outpaced Manning, throwing for 339 yards on 24-of-37 passing. Martavis Bryant also filled the void that Brown left, catching nine passes for 154 yards.
Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, neither player was able to translate those impressive numbers into points on the scoreboard.
A combination of timely defensive stops, big plays and conservative play-calling by Denver gave the Steelers a slight 10-9 lead at halftime.
Two McManus field goals in the first quarter put Denver ahead, 6-0, but Toussaint's one-yard touchdown run with 1:22 left in the first quarter erased the Broncos' advantage.
Boswell made it a four-point game, 10-6, in the second quarter, but McManus responded as time expired in the first half to bring the home team to within a point.
Manning had fewer than 100 yards through the first two quarters, which didn't spell good news for the Broncos, per NFL GameDay:
Peyton Manning had 99 pass yds in the 1st half He's 1-6 in postseason when held under 100 yards passing at halftime— NFL GameDay (@NFLGameDay) January 17, 2016
The numbers played into the narrative that Manning struggles more when the temperature drops. As 120 Sports noted, however, Denver's issues in the passing game went deeper than the quarterback:
Recap of Peyton Manning's first half: 11/22, 99 Yds. Broncos have six dropped passes. pic.twitter.com/n5qPQWF8JE— 120 Sports (@120Sports) January 17, 2016
ESPN Stats & Info found that Denver's six drops tied for the most by a team in the postseason over the past decade.
NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal questioned whether Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak was putting his team in position to win:
Broncos playing not to lose. Feels like the loss to Colts last year— Gregg Rosenthal (@greggrosenthal) January 17, 2016
The game continued to be a defensive struggle into the second half. Boswell and McManus exchanged field goals in the third quarter as Pittsburgh barely clung to a lead. Pittsburgh had a golden opportunity to pad that advantage in the fourth quarter when it drove into Denver territory, but Toussaint's fumble proved costly.
Losing in the postseason is always a bitter pill to swallow, but the Steelers have little reason to look back on Sunday with much regret. Pittsburgh was without its best offensive player (Brown) and starting running back (Le'Veon Bell), and its franchise QB was hampered by a shoulder injury. Despite that, it nearly advanced to the conference title game.
If anything, the Steelers will be upset with the way the regular season unfolded, when they looked like the best team in the league at times but also lost to the 5-11 Baltimore Ravens on two occasions.
As long as Pittsburgh can stay relatively healthy in 2016, it should be in contention for the division and conference crowns.
The Broncos' win sets the stage for another matchup between the two greatest QBs of their generation. Sports Illustrated's Doug Farrar is already bracing for the endless Brady-Manning discussions that are to come:
i hope someone writes a brady manning thinkpiece this week— Doug Farrar (@SI_DougFarrar) January 18, 2016
The Broncos and Patriots played earlier in the year, with Denver winning at home in overtime in Week 12.
While Brady vs. Manning has lost some of its allure in recent years, the fact that a spot in Super Bowl 50 is on the line next week, coupled with the possibility of it being Manning's final game, will make the 2016 AFC Championship Game one to remember.
Bleacher Report's Cecil Lammey provided Manning's thoughts after the game:
#Broncos Peyton Manning "It was tough all night."— Cecil Lammey (@CecilLammey) January 18, 2016
#Broncos now 10-3 when in games decided by a TD or less "It's playoff football, you know it's going to be a grind." Peyton Manning— Cecil Lammey (@CecilLammey) January 18, 2016
There was some controversy early in the fourth quarter when Manning looked to have given himself up in the pocket and fell to the turf, which should've resulted in a loss of yards. Manning didn't hear a whistle, got back to his feet and completed a 34-yard pass to Emmanuel Sanders.
"I'd like to get in there early in the morning and then delete it off the game film," Manning said of the play, per Pro Football Talk.
Denver ended up punting on the drive, so the play had little bearing on the final result.
Roethlisberger didn't let the defeat totally dampen his appreciation for his teammates' work in getting the team this far.
"I'm very proud of everyone's efforts," he said, per the Steelers' Twitter account. “We overcame so much to get to this point."
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, on the other hand, didn't have time for any such reflection.
“We're not into that," Tomlin said, per ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler, regarding reveling in an 11-win season despite so many injuries to key players.