ENGLEWOOD, Colo. —** As the Bengals rallied late in the fourth quarter to take control of momentum with a 16-point run to lead by one point with less than two minutes left, Head Coach Gary Kubiak began to think about the Kansas City Chiefs. With a Cincinnati win, Kansas City would be headed to Denver as the lowest remaining seed, and they surely gave him a lot to ponder, given how they completely dominated the Texans and delivered them the first home playoff shutout for any team in 47 years.
However, he wouldn't be able to think about them for too long, because the Steelers were giving every effort they could to avoid a loss. After leaving the field at the end of a third quarter with a shoulder injury, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger returned for a final drive, hoping to spark the offense for a field goal, at the least.
The Broncos were back outside for practice as they begun their first preparation for the Steelers. (photos by Ben Swanson)
The Steelers proceeded to get past midfield into Cincinnati territory, and then the Bengals gave them the rest of the distance they needed. With 22 seconds left and no timeouts remaining, the Steelers desperately needed to get a first down, but they got much more when Roethlisberger looked for wide receiver Antonio Brown deep over the middle on a crossing route.
Linebacker Vontaze Burfict, coming from the opposite direction, collided with Brown on a hit that knocked Brown out of the game with a concussion. The hit earned Burfict a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty. In the ensuing pause while Brown was tended to by the medical staff, cornerback Adam Jones was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct during a commotion involving Steelers outside linebackers coach Joey Porter. The 30 yards from the two penalties put Pittsburgh at Cincinnati's 17-yard line, practically gifting the Steelers with a chip-shot game-winning field goal.
As the Broncos prepare for a rematch with the Steelers, whom they faced in a chippy Week 15 matchup, Head Coach Gary Kubiak recognized that the team could learn from the Bengals' missteps.
"Every Saturday morning I show our guys things that have happened around the league, things that have been really good, real smart football, and things that maybe happened around the league that you can't have," Kubiak said, noting that Saturday's wild-card game offers such a lesson. "We're always talking about those things. Penalties here or there or one play here or there is the difference in playing another week and not playing at all this time of year, and our guys understand that."
Penalties had been an issue for the Broncos in the first half of the regular season, coming to a crescendo in Week 9 against Indianapolis when the defense had four penalties that helped the Colts control a game-sealing drive. In the first eight games, the Broncos gave up on average 3.5 first downs per game with penalties, and in the eight games since, they've cut it to 2.25 per game, a 35.7 percent decrease.
With the Bengals' miscues taking the brunt of the blame for the season-ending loss, the Broncos picked up on how continuing to avoid emotional errors in the heat of the moment can prevent them from suffering a colossal postseason meltdown.
"What I learned from it is you've got to keep your composure," defensive end Malik Jackson said. "I think Cincinnati had the game, but they just lost their composure and some things. I think we learned a lot. Watch your composure. Coaches don't get on the field. Everybody just do your part, don't do too much and don't be selfish and show your emotions and make it all about you."