And make no mistake, that fumble, which was the game’s lone turnover, was a big turning point.
But what happened next was just as important in the outcome of the game.
Pittsburgh’s defense, which to that point, had done an excellent job of bottling up Denver’s offense, finally cracked.
Denver drove 65 yards on 13 plays – converting a pair of third downs along the way – to score the game-winning touchdown.
How out of character – at least in this game – was that drive?
* Prior to that drive, Denver was 1-for-12 on third downs. The Broncos were 2-2 on that touchdown drive, including Peyton Manning completing a 31-yard catch and run to Bennie Fowler on third-and-13. Fowler had dropped back-to-back passes earlier in the game, but beat a diving Brandon Boykin in this case and held on.
* The Broncos’ running game had been sporadic to that point, but produced 26 yards on this drive, failing to have any of the negative runs that had plagued them earlier.
* The drive was one of only two in the game in which Denver gained more than 34 yards.
“It was a turnover, yeah, but it was deep in our territory,” said Steelers linebacker James Harrison. “We still had time and room to put a stop to it, we just weren’t able to. They were able to extend their drive. We’re sitting on the outside looking in now.”
That was what was so troubling to the Steelers, even more so than the fumble. They had been shutting Denver’s offense down throughout the game. And suddenly, they weren’t.
“They got the run going a little bit, then I think we had them in a third-and-12 and we couldn’t get off,” said defensive end Cam Heyward. “Then they tried to hurry us up, but we’ve just got to make the tackle. I’m not sure what happened there. We had some good opportunities to get off or at least give up a field goal instead of a touchdown. As a defense, we relish those moments where it’s all on our backs. We just didn’t come up big.”
The Steelers did a nice job against Denver’s running game for most of the game. But Denver found its way in the critical fourth quarter, gaining positive yardage on that game-winning drive.
“We went to some blitzes. To counter that, the best way to do it is to run the ball,” said Heyward. “A couple of times, we got out of our gaps. We gave ourselves a chance to win, we just didn’t finish. That fourth quarter, that’s the time where we’ve really got to pick up our play in all three phases. We didn’t do that.”
@ Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger came into this game at less than 100 percent, playing with a separated shoulder. But you would have been hard-pressed to see he was hurt if you didn’t know it. Roethlisberger completed 24 of 37 passes for 339 yards, a new career high for the postseason. He also moved past Terry Bradshaw (3,833) for the most passing yards in Steelers postseason history, with 4,052.
What he wanted most, however, was a win.
“It’s tough,” said Roethlisberger. “You want to keep going, and you just feel like things are going your way because we’ve overcome so much. It’s just, it’s just disappointing to lose.”
His teammates agreed. The Steelers were starting to think they were a team of destiny.
“What we’re all feeling is disappointment,” said tight end Heath Miller. “None of us expected to be going home. No matter what was said outside, we all expected to come here, fight the battle and come out with the victory. That’s where our thoughts are right now.”
Added guard David DeCastro: “No one gave us a chance. All year we just kind of put our heads down and went to work. I remember looking at TV and they said no one’s ever won without their leading receiver and running back. I was like, ‘Woah! You mean everybody’s counting us out? We don’t have a chance?’ I thought we fought really hard to the end there and then we just gave it away.”
@ One Pittsburgh TV reporter kept trying to give Harrison an out by using the team’s injuries as an excuse for the loss. Harrison wasn’t buying it.
“Injuries are not an excuse. Everyone has injuries. You’ve got to be able to make it through those injuries,” Harrison said. “I felt like we could have done that, but we came up short. There are no excuses. They played better than we did. Injuries are not going to be an excuse. I’m not going to diminish what they did. They played better than we did.”
The reporter continued, but Harrison cut him off.
“I don’t care about that. We didn’t do our job,” Harrison said.