One Broncos possession after another fell short of the end zone, while the Steelers showed a knack for explosive plays, with more gains of 35 or more yards Sunday (four) than the Broncos allowed in their final six regular-season games (two). With those circumstances colliding, murmurs of discontent spread. There were even boos at times.
Many fans who watched the Broncos lose two of their previous three divisional-round games at home felt as though they were watching a replay.But even though the home team wore the same orange jerseys as it has the last four seasons, the team on the west sideline Sunday -- the 2015 edition of the Broncos -- isn't the same team.
It didn't get to 12-4 and the AFC's top seed by sprinting past one foe after another; it got there through grit, timely plays on offense, and power and speed on defense, which often led to takeaways. That was the formula in a majority of its wins in the regular season, and the Broncos followed it to the letter in their 23-16 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.
The second half illustrated the contrast between last year's Broncos and the 2015 edition. At the same time that they sunk last year, they soared.
Even as they trailed Sunday, one sentiment rang throughout the sideline the sideline:
"We're gonna win," recalled defensive end
The game was flowing agains them; the Steelers marched into Broncos territory twice early in the fourth quarter. It didn't matter.
"It's destined to be," Smith said.
"To be perfectly honest, as a player on the sideline, you know when you can feel like some of your teammates, it's kind of like, all right, 'This is it, we're about to lose.' Not at one point of the game [did] that kind of body language happen."
Perhaps they didn't know that the Broncos' average of 7.25 points per fourth quarter was 53.3 percent better than their pace in other quarters, the sixth-best fourth-quarter surge in the league.
Or that the Broncos scored more offensive touchdowns in the fourth quarter of games (11) than any other quarter, and that their surge was so significant that their fourth-quarter touchdowns matched the combined total of all their first and third quarters during the regular season.
Maybe they didn't know that the Broncos forced 12 takeaways in the fourth quarter or overtime of their 16 regular-season games, more than all but two teams in the league, and five takeaways higher than the league average.
Those are numbers for those of us who sit upstairs, who study the field on Sundays and then spend the days that follow poring over spreadsheets to confirm that their eyes aren't lying.
"If you're a playoff team, you've got to have that in you," said TE
Never in their history have the Broncos had more comebacks from halftime deficits than during the 2015 season; Sunday marked their fourth, tying the 1992 and 2011 teams. The only teams with more rallies from halftime deficits in each of the last three seasons were the 2013 and 2014 Seahawks, with five each year, making their runs to consecutive Super Bowl appearances possible.
Like the 2015 Broncos, those Seahawks teams had an overpowering, top-ranked defense and just enough offense to win far more often than not. But they also had the grit to power through struggles, something this Broncos team demonstrated again Sunday.
"When you're a team that has not faced adversity, and you get in the playoffs and adverse situations happen, nine times out of 10, you don't respond well, because you haven't been there before," Smith said. "You don't know to calm down, that it's going to be all right, go to the next play."
"There wasn’t [any] doubt," said wide receiver
Sunday, the Broncos were back to the leave-it-until-late ways that fueled seven second-half comebacks.
“That is how it’s been all year," said running back
"We’ve been down, teams relax and we find a way to get back in it. That is what it’s been all season. We’re relentless in there. We fight, we grind and we just keep pushing. We keep fighting every time.”
And that is why the Broncos will play on for at least one more week. Sunday, they succeeded at the same point they feel short. Once again, they kicked and screamed. Once again, they survived.
And if they can ever play a full game the way they can play the end of it?
"We did have some adverse situations this year," Smith said, a knowing smile crossing his face. "We're battle-tested. But we've still got learning to do, and we've still got growing to do."