In a defensive game like the one the Pittsburgh Steelers and Denver Broncos found themselves in Sunday in the divisional round of the AFC Playoffs, every play is magnified. In fact, most playoff games can be broken down to a handful of plays which turned the tide in the game. This game was no different, and we break down the three plays which ultimately had a large impact of the overall outcome of the game, and ending the Steelers' season just a step away from playing the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game.
Granted there were more plays which could have, or should have, been made by both teams, but these are the three we feel most impacted the game.
Anyone who follows BTSC, and especially the Film Room series we run throughout the season, knows we don't harp on calls which didn't go the Steelers' way, but this is the exception. With the Steelers clinging to a slim lead, Ben Roethlisberger threw a nice pass to Martavis Bryant in the end zone on third down, and a great deal of contact occurred before the football got to Bryant.
What compounds this non-call is the fact William Gay was flagged just the series before on a play where he barely touched Demaryius Thomas before the football got to him. At first glance, it looks like Aqib Talib makes a tremendous play on the ball, but in the first sequence in this GIF watch Talib's right arm hold Bryan'ts arms from fully extending and high-pointing the football. To not sound like crying over spilled milk, this was much more egregious than Gay's penalty, and would have placed the football at the Denver one-yard line with a new set of downs. A scenario where we like Pittsburgh's chances of adding six-points to the scoreboard.
Thought the non-call on Talib in the previous play was frustrating? This one was equally, if not more, frustrating in regards to how the officials ruled the play. As you can see in the GIF above, Peyton Manning sees Will Allen get an edge around Owen Daniels, and he gives himself up. There is no slipping or tripping on the play. Manning surrenders himself, which he does often, to avoid injury and a potential negative play, like a fumble.
However, for whatever reason, the officials don't rule him as giving himself up, and Manning gets up and throws a strike to Emmanuel Sanders for a first down. The Broncos didn't score on this drive, but the play flipped field position, and turned a negative play into a positive play. The fact the officiating continues to be a clear narrative throughout the season is the most disappointing aspect of these GIFs.
And here is the back-breaker. Fitzgerald Toussaint has a nice gain to the left side, and as he turns his shoulder to brace for impact, free safety Bradley Roby is able to punch the ball out. It was perfect timing on the play, and many will question Darrius Heyward-Bey's block, and not being able to hold Roby off the ball carrier, and rightfully so.
Toussaint is even about to put his second hand on the football to prevent a fumble, but it was too late. While we have criticized officials throughout this Film Room, might as well continue. When this play occurred, the ball was awarded to the Broncos with a very quick whistle, but watch where the football ends up at the end of this GIF. Alejandro Villanueva and DeMarcus Ware certainly make it look as if it is anyone's football. Nonetheless, the ball shouldn't have been on the turf in the first place.
Looking back, this loss still stings, for multiple reasons. First, the Steelers had the lead in the fourth quarter, and had outplayed the top-seeded Broncos till that point, but to see so many plays go the Broncos' way made it seem as if it simply wasn't meant to be.
The Steelers now brace for a long offseason as all they can do is hope the team is able to stay healthier in 2016 than they did in 2015. If that can happen, the sky is the limit for this team.