In this up-and-down season for Peyton Manning, it was only fitting that his most memorable play in Sunday’s divisional playoff game against Pittsburgh was an up-down-up doozy that demonstrated his resiliency.
It wasn’t the decisive play in Denver’s 23-16 victory — the Broncos’ offense sputtered more than it sparkled — but it was quite an athletic feat for a 39-year-old quarterback who missed the final seven regular-season games with a foot injury that made it hard to walk.
Now, amazingly, he and the Broncos are one win away from another Super Bowl. They play host to New England on Sunday in the AFC championship game, the 17th meeting between Manning and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. The must-watch matchup of No. 18 Manning and No. 12 Brady is commonly referred to as, of course, the War of 1812.
On the play in question Sunday, which occurred early in the fourth quarter, Manning stepped up to avoid a sack and slipped to the ground. Realizing he hadn’t been touched, he quickly climbed to his feet, saw receiver Emmanuel Sanders running across the field, and hit him in stride for a 34-yard gain.
Manning joked after the game that he planned to get to Broncos headquarters early this week and delete the play from the digital game footage before anyone else got to the office.
“Those video guys get there pretty quick,” he said.
The Steelers argued Manning had given himself up, essentially a phantom sack, and shouldn’t have been able to get up and continue the play. That type of play cannot be challenged.
Sunday’s slog wasn’t filled with Manning highlights. The Broncos stuck around with five field goals from Brandon McManus, but didn’t get to the end zone until C.J. Anderson pounded in from a yard out with 3 minutes 4 seconds to play. With a successful conversion pass, Denver took a 20-13 lead it would never relinquish.
The weather was milder than expected, 43 degrees at kickoff, but it was also windier. Manning doesn’t throw a high-velocity ball, anyway, but it jumped around in the gusts, which apparently made it trickier to catch. The Broncos, who never had more than three drops in a game this season, had seven Sunday.
“A couple of those were the wind, but as a receiver we should have still made those plays,” Denver’s Demaryius Thomas said. “He was putting the ball in the right spot so we could make plays. It’s no excuse for us dropping those.”
The Steelers, meanwhile, were playing without some key pieces after their bruising wild-card game at Cincinnati a week earlier. They didn’t have All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown (concussion) or running back DeAngelo Williams (foot), and Roethlisberger was battling a sprained throwing shoulder suffered in the Bengals game.
Nevertheless, the Steelers tore off some big chunks of yardage against Denver’s top-ranked defense, gouging it with seven pass plays of at least 20 yards — including gains of 58, 52 and 37 — and a 40-yard run by Martavis Bryant.
And as for his sore shoulder, Roethlisberger put questions about that to rest on the game’s first play, when he effortlessly threw a deep ball for Markus Wheaton that fell incomplete but showed the threat was there.
“Definitely let us know he was going to be able to throw it all day long,” Denver Coach Gary Kubiak said.
And Roethlisberger did, completing 24 of 37 for 339 yards, but no touchdowns. Manning completed 21 of 37 for 222 yards, and also failed to throw a touchdown pass.
By the looks of this game, the Broncos appeared to be the 21st-ranked defense and the Steelers first, instead of vice versa.
Pittsburgh’s explosive plays notwithstanding, neither team could consistently move the ball when it had to. The Broncos were terrible on third down, converting three of 15 (20%), and the Steelers were even worse at two of 12 (17%).
The Steelers had moved into Denver territory and ran a draw with second-year back Fitzgerald Toussaint, who was three yards into his run when the ball was poked from his grasp. Cornerback Bradley Roby forced the fumble, and outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware pounced on it.
The crowd, a sea of orange with some small Pittsburgh clusters of yellow, erupted after waiting all game for the home team to make a big play. (Manning’s up-down-up completion came on an otherwise fruitless possession.)
That turnover set up a 65-yard drive by the Broncos that consumed nearly seven minutes of game clock. Manning kept the march alive by connecting on a 31-yard pass to Bennie Fowler on third and 12.
Though he’s clearly happy to be moving on to the conference title round, Manning declined to discuss the matchup against the Brady-led Patriots. He will do that when the game plan is installed on Wednesday.
“I just want to enjoy this for a couple hours,” Manning said. Masterpiece or not, the Broncos are where they want to be.