DENVER -- Living near the bottom of the standings, tucked underneath big names and hot teams, the Broncos have survived as a frail underdog for 10 weeks.
The upset of the Chargers provided an oxygen mask to a team gasping for relevance. But oh baby did they need a home victory to change the complexion of the season.
It arrived on a chilly Sunday night against a club many believe will represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. The Steelers stood at Denver’s 2-yard line with 67 seconds remaining, requiring a touchdown to extend Sunday’s fascinating affair.
With the rowdies in the South Stands at full throat, Ben Roethlisberger faked a handoff, stood up and threw, um, right into nose tackle Shelby Harris’ mitts. It completed a 48-hour run of goosebumps for the big guy. On Friday his wife gave birth to the couple’s third child, daughter Evelyn. On Sunday, he netted his first interception.
Oh, Baby indeed.
“I am heading to the hospital after this to give the ball to my wife,” a beaming Harris said. “What a way to end it. I am running on fumes, but I can't complain. I am on cloud nine.”
Of all the potential endings, this seemed the most unrealistic. Harris is a large man. He has soft hands. But, come on, really?
“No, it’s true. I throw passes to him all the time,” teammate and fellow big dude Domata Peko promised. “He has good hands. We all do.”
Added defensive line coach Bill Kollar, “Oh yeah, he can definitely catch.”
Harris picked a heck of a moment to reveal his sticky fingers. Harris dropped into coverage, he told me, after he saw Roethlisberger remove the ball from the back’s belly. He reacted with instincts, standing tall. It was not by design.
“Don’t let Shelby fool you,” defensive lineman Derek Wolfe said. “He’s way smarter than he lets on.”
Roethlisberger couldn't believe it. Even his recall seemed a bit sketchy after the Broncos' biggest takeaway of the season.
""I never would have thought in a million years a defensive lineman would get blocked off the ball that far right into an interception," Roethlisberger said. "Good play by him. (Antonio Brown) was coming. I just never would have thought that guy would make that play.''
Harris’ pick brought the playoffs flickering into the picture. The Broncos are 5-6, but they have run the hardest part of their obstacle course. No team entered Sunday with a higher opponents’ winning percentage. Of their remaining five games, only the Chargers sit above .500.
“We can’t focus on that,” cornerback Bradley Roby said. “We have to keep our focus small.”
The Broncos believe this win was different. It represented complementary football. The crowd returned. The offense took care of the ball. These are staples of teams that can win, and typically do.
“We are rolling now,” Peko said.
Typical of these Broncos, nothing comes easily. Big Ben gobbled stats over the initial 30 minutes, but left feeling hungry. The Steelers’ lone touchdown pass, which tied the game at 10, came from the arm of kicker Chris Boswell to tackle Alejandro Villanueva.
One play silenced the crowd, and threatened to change the outcome. In the third quarter, Roethlisberger stood in the pocket, wore Harris as a sweater, and somehow released a rainbow down field to JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 97-yard touchdown. Schuster stamped the score with a straight arm of safety Darian Stewart. As one Broncos official said, “The place turned into a morgue.”
Could Denver, a team that hadn't won a home game since Sept. 16, respond? Last year, the Broncos fractured into finger-pointing. This team is bound together tighter than SaranWrap. Talent might be a question, but effort is not.
Trailing 17-10 following Chris Harris Jr.'s interception, the Broncos rallied with a sprinkle of uptempo. Case Keenum, who completed 15 of 28 passes for 197 yards, connected with a tumbling Emmanuel Sanders for a 38-yard gain. The Broncos sprinted to the line to prevent a replay review, though officials deemed it a catch. Keenum followed with a rollout and dart to Sanders, who is enjoying his best season in Denver, to tie the score.
"I think it's kind of burned into our personality," Keenum said. "You get hit in the face, you get hit in the nose, and you just come right back swinging."
It set up the most important moment not involving Shelby Harris.
The Broncos found a formula last week. Give up yards, not points. As the Steelers helped fantasy league teams – they finished with 527 yards -- their reality was more sobering. With the game tied at 17, James Connor caught a pass and sped into open field. Roby, beaten earlier on Smith-Schuster's score, knocked into Connor, jarring the ball loose as safety Darian Stewart recovered. The stadium erupted back to life.
“After I gave up that touchdown, I prayed I would get another chance. I have worked too hard for God to do me like that,” said Roby, who caused a fumble to help the Broncos eclipse the Steelers during Denver’s 2015 Super Bowl run. “I wanted to cause a fumble and get a pick. I had to find a way to help us win this game.”
It helped that offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave ditched his AOL email and became creative. He used tight ends in the passing game off double fakes. It set up Lindsay for an 18-yard gain that featured him yapping at safety Terrell Edmunds. Earlier this season, Lindsay jawed at All-Pro Patrick Peterson as he carried him into the end zone.
"They are all human," said Lindsay, who finished with 110 yards rushing on 14 carries.
Lindsay's performance has strained the imagination. When Lindsay bolted in from 2 yards out moments later, the Broncos regained a 24-17 advantage with 9:17 remaining. It capped the team's most impressive drive this season: an 11 play, 79-yard march, absorbing 5:43 off the clock. It arrived at a time when the season had become a cliche: all or nothing.
“It’s been a rough month, but this team never stopped believing or working,” coach Vance Joseph said. “It’s finally turning and the reward for believing is happening right now”
When a team features skin blotches, special teams can act as better blemish than Revlon. The Broncos received their best block this side of Twitter. For the third time in his career, safety Justin Simmons jumped over the center and deflected a field goal, deflecting Boswell's 41-yard attempt.
Simmons works on this move and executes it with timing and a 40-inch vertical leap. He pulled it off against Baltimore earlier this season and produced a victory with it at New Orleans in 2016.
The Broncos capitalized with an eight-play, 39-yard drive. Denver secured a 3-0 lead on Brandon McManus' 41-yard boot with 6:26 remaining in the first, but it felt empty as Connor McGovern's block in the back prevented a first-and-goal.
Denver continued to live dangerously, recognizing that yards can be allowed if turnovers are produced. With the Steelers thisclose to taking the lead on a beautiful play-action-fake-and-pass to tight end Xavier Grimble, Will Parks introduced himself. As Grimble failed to switch hands with the ball, Parks leveled him, causing a fumble and a touchback.
“That was such a huge play,” outside linebacker Bradley Chubb said. “I thought for sure he was going to score.”
Like the Chargers game, the Broncos paled statistically, but remained effective because of takeaways. Denver has slowly begun to recognize Keenum's strengths. He throws well in play-action, on play-action boot and in double tight end sets.
And it helps the Steelers diverted their attention to Lindsay for long stretches. They had no choice after he bolted 32 yards for a first down at one point. Rams MVP candidate Todd Gurley tweeted, "I like Lindsay's game. #SpeedKills." Because of Lindsay's 4.3 40-yard dash, it influenced a touchdown. With first-and-goal at the 10, Keenum directed Lindsay into the flat. The Steelers bit, and emerging weapon Matt LaCosse stood wide open for a score. He collected 34 yards receiving in the first half to pair with his first-ever touchdown.
“I have been fired four times,” said LaCosse, an undrafted player. “I am happy to get this off my back.”
The Steelers rallied, taking advantage of an unlikely weapon. Slot receiver Ryan Switzer gashed the Broncos for chunk plays leading to a critical moment. The Steelers faced fourth-and-2 with three seconds remaining in the half. Pittsburgh lined up for a field goal. Consider it a great tease. Boswell took a direct snap -- not sure I have ever seen it -- and lobbed a touchdown to Villanueva for the touchdown. In a half when the Steelers controlled the clock, passed relentlessly, the score was knotted at the halftime. Roethlisberger's 25 completions represented the most by a Steeler in the first half since 1960.
And yet this game will not be remembered for Roethlisberger’s 41 completions. It will ruminate in Colorado this week because of Harris’ first interception.
“I got it,” Harris said pointing to the pigskin on a shelf in his locker. “I am keeping that ball.”
The Broncos special teams remains dramatically improved after the one-year dumpster fire under Brock Olivo. They have blocked four kicks this season (two field goals, one punt, one extra point) with Tom McMahon in charge. ... Lindsay now holds the Broncos record for rushing yards by an undrafted free agent. He has 780 yards, leaving him on pace for 1,134. Selvin Young held the mark for an undrafted free agent with 729 in 2007. … Von Miller extended his sack streak to six games with a half sack. He has 10.5 this season. Chubb’s streak ended at five games. … cornerback Tramaine Brock hurt his left ribs tackling Smith-Schuster in the third quarter. In the fourth quarter, tight end Jeff Heuerman (back) and OLB Shaq Barrett (hip) left the game.