Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint, playing in place of Williams, had the ball jarred loose from his arms on a hit from cornerback Bradley Roby (above). Denver outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware pounced on the loose ball. Manning turned that fumble into the Broncos’ only touchdown drive of the day, and a two-point conversion after C.J. Anderson’s 1-yard score with three minutes remaining gave the Broncos a 20-13 lead.
By Annie Ross
It was a tough pill to swallow, even for a veteran of gut-wrenching NFL games like Mike Tomlin.
The Steelers head coach gave out handshakes and pats on the back in addition to quick words of encouragement, but it was unclear who needed the consoling more – the players who had just suffered a 23-16 season-ending loss to the Denver Broncos in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs, or Tomlin himself.
Tomlin broke down in tears earlier while addressing his team, players said, and his eyes were still red and shiny as the team prepared to head home.
“I’ve never seen him cry before,” receiver Martavis Bryant said.
It was the sign of a coach who truly believed his team would win, even without their No. 1 receiver, Antonio Brown, or running back DeAngelo Williams, both of whom were ruled out with injuries, and with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger nursing a sore throwing shoulder. Tomlin believed because this was a year in which his team had already been through worse.
The Steelers survived drug-related suspensions for Bryant and star running back Le’Veon Bell, who then suffered a season-ending knee injury on Nov. 1. They had to turn to two backup quarterbacks – first Michael Vick and then Landry Jones – after Roethlisberger missed five starts with knee and ankle injuries. They may have backed into a wild card spot, but they earned their place in the divisional round with a gutsy win last week against the rival Cincinnati Bengals.
And for 57 minutes Sunday, they looked like they were about to knock off Peyton Manning and the top-seeded Broncos.
It wasn’t a fluke that the Steelers led 13-12 late in the fourth quarter. They got there with a defense that throttled the Broncos’ running game and pestered Manning just enough to limit his downfield throws, and with a passing attack that exploited the Broncos’ soft zone coverage. Even without Brown there as his favorite target, Roethlisberger threw for 339 yards. He is the only quarterback to throw for more than 300 yards against the Broncos defense this season, and he did it twice.
It hadn’t been a pretty game, but the Steelers played most of it without a major mistake. But when that error came, it was costly.
Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint, playing in place of Williams, had the ball jarred loose from his arms on a hit from cornerback Bradley Roby. Denver outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware pounced on the loose ball. Manning turned that fumble into the Broncos’ only touchdown drive of the day, and a two-point conversion after C.J. Anderson’s 1-yard score with three minutes remaining gave the Broncos a 20-13 lead.
But even then, the Steelers weren’t done. There was another field goal late, and a chance for an onside kick, and with the way the Steelers season played out, could you blame Tomlin and his players for believing that yet again, it might work out?
That it didn’t was devastating.
“We just kept battling, no matter what was going on, what adversity. I appreciate that, but it stings right now,” defensive end Cameron Heyward said. “It hurts more when you lose a game like this than when you get blown out, as crazy as it sounds. It just sucks.”