PITTSBURGH — There was no explosion necessary, really. The Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t need to be reminded how badly they looked while falling behind Denver by two touchdowns at halftime Sunday, even though linebackers coach Joey Porter decided to provide one anyway.
“I think everybody was (ticked) off,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “I don’t think it was just Joey. We all knew we played (terribly) in the first half. We really just had to wake up.”
The NFL’s best offense provided the alarm clock.
Ben Roethlisberger passed for 380 yards and three touchdowns as the Steelers rallied for a 34-27 win to move into the AFC’s second wild-card spot with two weeks remaining. Antonio Brown caught 16 passes for 189 yards and two scores, and Pittsburgh (9-5) dominated the NFL’s best defense after spotting the Broncos a 17-point lead.
“If we take care of the ball, we feel like we can go up and down the field on anyone,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.
Including the No Fly Zone, the nickname Denver’s secondary gave itself, talk the Broncos have backed up for much of the year. Just not this time. The Steelers controlled the second half, finally taking the lead when Ryan Shazier intercepted Brock Osweiler to set up a 23-yard dart from Roethlisberger to Brown with 3:24 to go.
Pittsburgh’s defense, shredded so easily on, made it stand up. The Steelers twice stopped the Broncos in Pittsburgh territory over the final minutes.
“It’s very disappointing,” Denver coach Gary Kubiak said. “That’s this business. You better be built for four quarters, not three.”
Osweiler threw for 296 yards with three touchdowns passing and another on the ground but bruised his left shoulder in the second quarter and wasn’t the same when he returned as the Broncos (10-4) lost their second straight and failed to lock up the AFC West title. Osweiler will have X-rays on Monday to determine if there’s any more damage. He completed just 7 of 26 passes for 84 yards after halftime, including the pick that set up Brown’s winning score.
Emmanuel Sanders caught 10 passes for a career-high 181 yards and a score in his first game against his former team. Demaryius Thomas hauled in a pair of touchdowns, but the Broncos were shut out in the second half for the third consecutive week and are just 3-4 following a 7-0 start.
“You play 60 minutes, not 30 minutes,” Osweiler said. “That is something we will work on and we will fix.”
Who gets a chance to do the fixing is unclear. Osweiler’s grasp on the starting job appeared tenuous coming in after the offense failed to find the end zone in a home loss to Oakland last Sunday.
Peyton Manning returned to practice last week for the first time in a month as he continues to recover from torn plantar fascia in his left foot. The NFL’s all-time passing leader traveled with the team and signed dozens of autographs in the pregame, save for any of Pittsburgh’s yellow Terrible Towels, which Manning shunned when thrust his way.
Perhaps it provided inspiration for Osweiler, who spent a half forcing the largest crowd in Heinz Field history to keep their favorite linens tucked safely in their pockets as Denver raced up and down the field.
The Broncos had gone 24 straight possessions without an offensive touchdown before reaching the end zone four straight times. Osweiler hit Thomas for an 18-yard score then found Sanders for an easy 61-yard catch and run. Osweiler stumbled his 6-foot-7 frame across the goal line to make it 20-7 and when Thomas stiff-armed Pittsburgh’s Antwon Blake to finish off a 6-yard touchdown, the Broncos were up 27-10.
Yet just as quickly a Denver’s momentum appeared, it vanished. The group that converted its first eight third-downs went just 1 for 8 in those situations in the second half, giving Roethlisberger time to get going.
A pretty lob to the back corner of the end zone to Brown pulled Pittsburgh with 27-20. The Steelers then caught the break they needed thanks to some overanxious Broncos. Pittsburgh punted late in the third quarter and two Steelers attempted to down it, only to whiff. A couple of Denver linemen — all the way on the other side of the field — thought the play was dead. It wasn’t. Jordan Norwood had scooped up the ball and zig-zagged 71 yards for a score that should have restored a two-touchdown lead. The flag for illegal substitution wiped out the score, and the Broncos went three-and-out.
Pittsburgh tied it at 27 on its next possession, with Wheaton scooting in from 9 yards out and dancing a little jig with Brown. A half-hour later Brown was celebrating after putting the Steelers up for good.
“You want to be the best, you’ve got to be the best,” Brown said. “There’s no stopping me.”