Boos swirled around Sports Authority Field on Sunday planting a message in the Broncos' ears worse than the stinging wind that hit their faces.
A mixture of unrest and unhappiness
with the Broncos' offense, which had a mere four field goals through three quarters, reached its peak. Denver trailed for 43 minutes and 22 seconds against the undermanned Steelers.
Then came a 13-play, 65-yard fourth-quarter drive that won the game. It contained a couple laser-accurate throws, but at its heart were 10 runs by C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman gnawing, pounding and forcing their way into the end zone for the go-ahead score.
"That is how it's been all year," Anderson said. "We've had ups and downs. We've struggled, but we keep on battling. We're relentless in there. We fight, we grind and we just keep pushing."
It's no secret the defense is carrying this team. Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning said as much after the game Sunday. Yet every week, there's a sliver of hope that maybe this is the game the Broncos turn back the clock and unleash something resembling the record-setting 2013 offense.
Let that go. It's not the same offense and won't be again. The 2015 Broncos have a different identity. Coach Gary Kubiak wants to run the ball and won't let struggles deter him from grinding it out.
"It's tough to stay at it and keep your head in the game when nothing's going your way, but you just have to in those kinds of games," Hillman said. "It's playoff football. This is do or die. They did have us bottled up, but that last drive, our offensive line buckled down and gave us some lanes to run in."
The stats tell it all. Denver is 7-0 in games when it rushes for 130 yards this season, including its 30-24 overtime victory over New England on Nov. 29.
That game ended with Anderson's 47-yard walkoff touchdown run in overtime. Kubiak's faith in the running game allowed the Broncos to wear down their opponents and deal the final blow.
Sunday's AFC championship game against New England at Sports Authority Field will be a test to see if the Broncos can grind out another victory to get back to the Super Bowl.
New England works a bit differently. Patriots coach Bill Belichick isn't so concerned about balance. In New England's first matchup against the Broncos, it rushed for 39 yards on 16 attempts. Denver rushed for 179 yards and three touchdowns on 32 carries.
It was a stark contrast, but not a surprise.
Even without their top wide receivers, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, the Patriots found comfort with the ball in the hands of quarterback Tom Brady. New England came out firing with nine consecutive passes. In the Patriots' divisional playoff game Saturday against Kansas City, the Patriots' first 14 plays were passes, including 11 on their opening touchdown drive.
"There are a lot of things that go into how you start a game," Patriots' offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. "Whatever it may be to try to find a rhythm and move the ball and get first downs and ultimately score points."
New England had the NFL's third worst rushing attack this season averaging 87.8 yards per game.
The Patriots do it primarily by air, but Belichick's game plan has been known to switch from game-to-game. The Broncos like to pound it on the ground. If Denver is to reach its second Super Bowl in three seasons, it will need to master its identity better than New England excels at its own.