DENVER -- When the Broncos began an eight-game gauntlet that featured six games against teams currently in playoff position, they found ways to lose. Whether it was through penalties, mid-game lulls, turnovers or opportunities at big plays that just missed, the Broncos fell to the Rams, Texans and Chiefs -- twice -- by a combined 15 points.
Those defeats would have meant nothing but heartbreak if the Broncos had not learned lessons from them. Instead, for a second consecutive week, those lessons led to a clutch victory.
A late defensive stand. A clutch fourth-quarter scoring drive. A comeback that began in the third quarter. Dominance in the giveaway-takeaway margin ensuring that a massive deficit in yardage was meaningless. These are the common threads that connect the Broncos' wins over the last two weeks.
In some ways, Sunday's 24-17 win over Pittsburgh took the circumstances that led to last week's win at Los Angeles and amplified them. Instead of a plus-2 turnover margin, it was plus-4. Instead of being outgained by 154 yards, the Steelers had a 219-yard advantage.
“To me, we're so battle-tested that we don't break -- we just bend a little bit,” defensive end Derek Wolfe said, “They might throw for a bunch of yards; they might get it down to the red zone. But at the end of the day, we're going to get a stop down there, block a field goal, cause a fumble, stuff like that. I think it just comes to show you what kind of team we got here, and how much we care about each other.
"Bend, don't break. We've been like that for years."
Pittsburgh racked up 527 yards, the ninth-highest tally ever conceded by the Broncos. When allowing that many yards, the Broncos were winless -- until Sunday.
"Everybody gets caught up in the yards because of the fantasy [folderol], but at the end of the day, man, it's all about points and wins," Wolfe said. "Who cares about how many yards you had? As long as we won, that's all that matters."
Why did the Broncos win Sunday?
Because they won the turnover battle
Defensive end Shelby Harris' end-zone interception with 63 seconds remaining in the game sealed the win, but it was just the final burst in a four-act takeaway play that made the Broncos' victory possible.
Each of the Broncos' four turnovers -- interceptions by Shelby Harris and Chris Harris Jr. and forced fumbles by Will Parks and Bradley Roby -- came in Denver territory. Three of them came inside the Broncos 25-yard line. Two were in or within one yard of the end zone.
Thanks to those takeaways and Justin Simmons’ blocked field-goal attempt, Pittsburgh posted a meager 10 points from six possessions that reached at least the Denver 30-yard line. Meanwhile, the Broncos played their second consecutive turnover-free game, while quarterback Case Keenum enjoyed his third consecutive game without an interception.
"If we don't have turnovers and we have takeaways, I don't care how many yards they get," tight end Matt LaCosse said.
Turnover margin is the most predictive statistic of win-loss success, and a plus-4 turnover margin is a near-guarantee of victory. The Broncos have won 17 consecutive games when hitting or surpassing that mark since their last loss with that statistic on Oct. 26, 1987 at Minnesota. On a league-wide basis, teams with a plus-4 turnover margin or better have not lost since Jan. 3, 2016 -- a 45-game run that includes 44 wins and Cleveland's Week 1 tie against the Steelers.
Meanwhile, the Steelers are winless under current head coach Mike Tomlin when they post a turnover margin of minus-4 or worse, going 0-10-1 in those games in the Tomlin era. Pittsburgh is also now 18-34-1 -- including playoffs -- when Ben Roethlisberger throws at least two interceptions.
Because Phillip Lindsay dominated once again
A 32-yard second-quarter gallop out of a three-tight-end formation that also included fullback Andy Janovich uncorked the rookie running back, who finished with his first 100-yard game since Week 2 -- a 110-yard, one-touchdown performance that came on just 14 carries.
Lindsay averaged 7.9 yards per attempt -- a significant number for more than just the accomplishment itself, since the Broncos are 4-0 when Lindsay averages at least 6.0 yards per carry. Denver is also 5-1 when Lindsay rushes for at least 70 yards, compared with 0-5 when he doesn't hit that mark.
One reason the Broncos have found success on the ground is by disguising their intent. They'll run play-action. They'll pass out of a three-tight end set. They'll run out of a spread alignment.
"You don't know when we're going to run, when we're going to pass, and that keeps defenses on their toes," LaCosse said.
Because the Broncos tightened up on third downs
Pittsburgh came into to the game as the league's best third-down offense over the previous seven weeks, converting 57.1 percent of their opportunities. They did even better than that in the first quarter Sunday, converting four-of-five attempts. Each of those successful conversions required 4 or fewer yards needed to reach the line to gain.
Everything changed on the first play of the second quarter, when Will Parks slammed into Pittsburgh tight end Xavier Grimble at the Denver 1-yard line after he had picked up 23 yards on a pass from Roethlisberger. Parks' hit jarred the football from Grimble's grasp, and it bounced out of the end zone for a touchback.
Pittsburgh went 1-for-9 on third downs after the first quarter. Three of the Broncos' takeaways came on third downs, beginning with Parks' forced fumble, which took away what appeared to be a certain touchdown.
"We just came to finish today. Everybody was finishing plays," Parks said.
Because Colby Wadman neutralized Pittsburgh's punt-return game
Wadman's work continues to improve with each passing week, and Sunday's game might have been his best since the Broncos elevated him from the practice squad in Week 5. He posted a net punting average of 46.0 yards, and placed his punts so well that Pittsburgh's Ryan Switzer managed just 6 yards on three punt returns.
Although the 97-yard Roethlisberger-to-JuJu Smith-Schuster pass effectively negated the 50-yard third-quarter punt that Tim Patrick downed at the Pittsburgh 3-yard line, Wadman's work was still strong.
His ability to force Switzer to field punts near the sideline maximized his net yardage and ensured that Pittsburgh had no chance to flip the field back with an explosive return.