- Associated Press - Sunday, December 20, 2015

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Brock Osweiler spent two glorious quarters confounding the Pittsburgh Steelers. He then spent two more confounding his own team.

The Denver Broncos are still in first place in the AFC West. But their margin for error is dwindling. So is the play of their quarterback after the Broncos let a second-half lead slip away for a second straight week in s 34-27 loss Sunday.

How’s that foot feeling, Peyton Manning?

Osweiler passed for 296 yards with three touchdowns and added another on the ground, but did little after halftime as the Broncos (10-4) failed to lock up a division title with two weeks to go.

“You play 60 minutes, not 30 minutes,” Osweiler said. “That is something we’ll have to work on and we will fix.”

Who gets to fix it, however, remains uncertain. Manning returned to practice last week as he continues his recovery from a torn plantar fascia in his left foot. The NFL’s all-time passing leader was inactive for a fifth straight week, but perhaps not for much longer.

“He’s working his tail off to get back on the field,” Denver coach Gary Kubiak said. “That’s what he’s doing.”

Emmanuel Sanders caught 10 passes for 181 yards and a score in his first game against his former team. Demaryius Thomas hauled in a pair of touchdowns, but Osweiler completed just 7 of 26 passes over the final two quarters after bruising his left (non-throwing) shoulder late in the first half. He will have X-rays on Monday, but refused to blame the shoulder for his struggles and insists he’s not getting fixated on Manning’s status.

“I’ve always prepared as if I was the starter,” Osweiler said. “So for me, nothing changes either way.”

Maybe, but the Broncos know they need something to change if they want to fend off fast-closing Kansas City. Denver has been shutout in the second half for three straight weeks, two of them losses in which they let double-digit leads evaporate.

For the first time this season, the No Fly Zone didn’t help. Ben Roethlisberger passed for 380 yards and three touchdowns against the NFL’s top pass defense, one forced to play without injured safeties T.J. Ward and Omar Bolden. Antonio Brown caught 16 passes for 189 yards and two scores as Pittsburgh (9-5) moved into the AFC’s second wild-card spot after its biggest comeback in 18 years.

“That’s on us, on the defense. We can’t let a team back in it the way we did,” cornerback Chris Harris said. “And I can’t give up two touchdowns in a half the way I did. And that’s on me.”

The Steelers controlled the second half, finally taking the lead when Ryan Shazier intercepted Osweiler to set up a 23-yard dart from Roethlisberger to Brown with 3:34 to go. Pittsburgh’s defense made it stand up, twice stopping the Broncos over the final minutes.

Brown, Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant found plenty of room to maneuver against Denver’s secondary after making some adjustments during the half.

“You want to be the best and you’ve got to be the best,” Brown said. “There’s no stopping me.”

Osweiler’s grasp on the starting job appeared tenuous coming in after the offense failed to find the end zone in a home loss to Oakland last Sunday. Manning returned to practice last week for the first time in a month as he continues to recover from torn plantar fascia in his left foot. The NFL’s all-time passing leader traveled with the team and signed dozens of autographs in the pregame, save for any of Pittsburgh’s yellow Terrible Towels, which Manning shunned when thrust his way.

Perhaps it provided inspiration for Osweiler, who spent a half forcing the Steelers to keep their favorite linens tucked safely in their pockets as Denver raced up and down Heinz Field with ease.

The Broncos had gone 24 straight possessions without an offensive touchdown before reaching the end zone four straight times. Osweiler hit Thomas for an 18-yard score then found Sanders for an easy 61-yard catch and run. Osweiler stumbled his 6-foot-7 frame across the goal line to make it 20-7 and when Thomas stiff-armed Pittsburgh’s Antwon Blake to finish off a 6-yard touchdown, the Broncos were up 27-10.

Yet just as quickly a Denver’s momentum appeared, it vanished. The group that converted its first eight third-downs, then missed its next five, giving Roethlisberger more than enough time to have his way with the NFL’s best secondary.

NOTES: The Steelers have won 10 straight games in December. … Osweiler is only the third QB in Denver history to have three TD passes and one rushing score in the same game. … Brown is the only player since 1970 to have two 15-catch games in the same season. … Denver hosts Cincinnati next week. … The Steelers travel to Baltimore.


AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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