DENVER (AP) — Ben Roethlisberger folded himself into the chair next to running back Fitz Toussaint in the locker room, leaned in for a 60-second conversation, and when it was over, Big Ben gave the backup to the backup two reassuring slaps on the shoulder.
Roethlisberger told the runner it wasn’t his fault the Steelers lost Sunday.
But not even Big Ben could convince Toussaint it was true.
“I have to protect the ball. There’s no excuse for that,” he said.
His fumble, with 9:52 left in the fourth quarter, was the only turnover of the day and it led to Denver’s only touchdown of the day — the go-ahead score with 3 minutes left that sparked the Broncos to a 23-16 victory.
Denver moves on to the AFC title game. Pittsburgh goes home.
The Steelers (11-7) were ahead by one and in scoring range when Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby punched the ball out of Toussaint’s hand as he was going to the ground. DeMarcus Ware recovered it.
Over the next 6:52, Peyton Manning led the Broncos on a methodical, 65-yard march — their first drive of the day inside the Pittsburgh 10. It all played out like a slow-moving nightmare to the second-year player, promoted from the practice squad in November, with the injuries piling up.
“Over and over in my head, kept thinking, I could’ve protected the ball a little more,” Toussaint said of his thoughts during Denver’s go-ahead drive. “Obviously, they made a great play. You’ve got to give them credit, but in that situation, I put it on myself.”
Toussaint is a third-stringer, who came into the game with a grand total of 100 yards in the 2015 regular and postseason combined. He almost certainly wouldn’t have been carrying the ball in a pressure situation like that had Pittsburgh’s starter, DeAngelo Williams, not been out with a foot injury.
Receiver Antonio Brown was out, too, courtesy of Vontaze Burfict’s hit to his head in last week’s wild-card playoff win over Cincinnati.
And Roethlisberger was playing with a banged-up shoulder, also thanks to Burfict, who landed on the QB hard, about an hour before he ended Brown’s season.
It’s been that kind of season for the Steelers — filled with injuries, stops and starts, pockets of unstoppable offense, inexplicable letdowns and, of course, a never-ending dose of injuries to top players.
Yet for 3½ quarters, this game felt like Pittsburgh’s.
Roethlisberger, who finished with 339 yards, connected with his second-tier receivers (mostly Martavis Bryant, who caught nine passes for 154 yards) for three plays of 35 yards or more, several of them targeting Roby. The defense kept Denver out of the end zone. The Steelers avoided turnovers.
Toussaint, while not spectacular, was part of the success. His plunge in from a yard gave Pittsburgh a 7-6 lead in the first quarter and the Steelers played with the lead most of the game.
“We watched TV and heard all the people saying, no team has won a postseason game without their leading receiver and their leading rusher,” Steelers offensive lineman David DeCastro said. “They said we didn’t have a chance. We knew they were counting us out.”
The upset-in-the-making turned into something else after Roby made his play.
In the end, a team that milked more out of the season than could be reasonably expected came up a turnover and a touchdown short.
“Bottom line, you lose the turnover battle in a hostile environment against good people and it’s going to cost you,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “And it cost us today.”
Asked about coming close and making it this far, Tomlin cut off the question: “We’re not into that.”
Back in the locker room, Roethlisberger tried to convince the running back that this loss wasn’t his fault.
It’s a message that will sink in on the flight home, and over the next few weeks, while the bumps and bruises are healing. But as he slowly got dressed Sunday evening, Toussaint was still feeling the pain.
“I hate losing,” he said. “I definitely hate not holding onto the football. Especially when it’s in a position like that.”