I turned off the Steelers-Broncos game at halftime. It was an accident, I swear -- that's the only way I would turn off a Steelers game. I really don't remember doing it, but it must have happened. Somehow, I wound up on another late-afternoon game.
I know it happened because, even though the two teams playing in the second game were dressed exactly the same, and the stadium sure looked a lot like Heinz Field, there were clearly two different teams on the field. In the first game, the Steelers looked like the Iowa Hawkeyes. No offense intended to the Big Ten runners up, as they had a fine season, but the best college team couldn't beat any NFL team outside of Cleveland, Ohio. But that's how bad they looked, and it's the only explanation I can think of, honestly. They had switched places with their collegiate doppelgangers, giving the Hawkeyes a warm-up for their bowl game. Surely, that was it.
Meanwhile, the 2014 NFL All-Pro team was apparently dressed as the Denver Broncos. I know the Steelers have a weak secondary, but that's the only possible way Brock Osweiler was able to torch them for 200 yards before halftime. That was actually Aaron Rodgers wearing number seventeen, right?
But then the Broncos fell back to Earth, and the city of Pittsburgh landed on top of them. After giving up touchdowns on the Broncos' last four drives in the first half, the Steelers came out in the second half and pitched a shut-out. Osweiler netted seventy-four passing yards in the third and fourth quarters. He could do no wrong in the first half, and managed to do little right in second.
All I could think, as the Steelers chipped away at what was, at one time, a 17-point lead, was that these were two different teams that we'd suffered through for the first thirty minutes. And "suffer" is being nice.
The Pittsburgh offense managed just 13 points in the first half, and seven of that came on a 21-yard drive after the Broncos fumbled their opening possession. After that turnover, the Steelers failed to keep Denver out of the end zone again before the second quarter drew to a close.
But then...then, something magical happened. Mike Tomlin, or maybe his two top assistants, Toddy Haley and Keith Butler, did or said something in the locker room. What it was, we will likely never know. Regardless, it worked. Each half featured a dominant offense and a bumbling defense. It's just strange that the roles changed uniforms between the halves. It was a game that would have done Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde proud as punch.
It's not like the Broncos didn't have something to play hard for either. They now have the slimmest of leads over the red-hot Chiefs for the AFC West championship. They have Cincinnati next Sunday. The last thing they were going to do was let off the gas when they had amassed a seventeen-point lead.
No, this turnaround was entirely on the Steelers, on both sides of the ball. The changes on defense were much more noticeable. The pass rush was stronger and the coverages were tighter. Receivers who had enjoyed five-yard cushions were suddenly smothered. Never was it more evident than on two passes, one defended by safety Mike Mitchell to force a punt, and one covered by William Gay that sealed the game. Whatever changed on offense, I can't tell you after a single viewing of the game. But something did, and it ended with the Steelers being the first team all year to throw for more than 300 yards and score at least 30 points on the Broncos.
Then again, we expect it: this was the sixth consecutive game in which the Steelers have scored 30. It's pretty much the new norm in the Steel City. They scored 30? Oh, cool. Hey, did you catch the latest episode of NCIS? Yeah, it's becoming that common.
But let's marvel, for a minute, at this defense. Not because they are studded with stars -- they aren't -- or because they have regularly buoyed the offense -- they haven't. Let's marvel at the way they refused to give up. Let's gawk like we would if our Ford Focus got passed on the Pennsylvania Turnpike by a Ford GT. Let's stand in awe that, despite bending so far that they could see their own behinds, they collectively pulled their craniums out of their nether-regions after their worst half of football this year, and proceeded to play what may have been their best. On a day when the Ravens inexplicably wore the Steelers' pants and Brandon-freakin'-Weeden led the Texans to their first win in Indianapolis -- ever -- the night/day transition of the Steelers' defense was the strangest thing that happened.
It was a tale of two very different halves that looked like different games. Fortunately, the good one was the last one. And it shows why no team wants to play them right now.