Broncos boot Steelers with big play in overtime
DENVER — The forlorn look in Hines Ward's eyes — the same one Antonio Brown and numerous other Steelers wore in a locker room that resembled a funeral — could be attributed to the moment that had just been shattered.
Ward and his fellow wide receivers were talking on the sidelines after the Steelers had erased a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit and sent a wild AFC wild-card playoff game into overtime. They were plotting their course of action, planning for when their top-ranked defense would get them the ball, when suddenly fans at Sports Authority Field went crazy.
"We look up, and the guy's running down the field for a touchdown," Ward said, the sting still fresh from the biggest play in a game full of them. "I'm stunned."
Demaryius Thomas' 80-yard catch-and-run on the first play of overtime gave the Denver Broncos a 29-23 win in front of a crowd of 75,970, and the play ushered the Steelers out of the playoffs following a 12-4 regular season.
Thomas owned Ike Taylor on Sunday, and, on the final play of the game, he got inside position on the Steelers cornerback. After catching the pass from Tim Tebow, he stiff-armed Taylor to break free, then outraced Taylor and free safety Ryan Mundy to the end zone.
The Steelers' season was over.
"They made the significant plays, particularly the chunks that allowed them to win," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "I'm proud of our guys and the way they fought back, but obviously we're not in it for moral victories."
It was a stunning loss — the Steelers were favored by more than a touchdown — that will raise questions that accompany offseasons that end sooner than the team had hoped.
Players are scheduled to meet with Tomlin on Monday at Steelers' headquarters on the South Side.
What will occupy their more immediate thoughts is how the season ended in the shadows of the Rocky Mountains against a team that entered the playoffs on a three-game losing streak.
The Steelers played their worst quarter under Tomlin after dominating the Broncos everywhere but the scoreboard in the game's first 15 minutes.
The Broncos scored 20 points in the second quarter, lifting them to a 14-point halftime lead. Tebow's magic, following a forgettable first quarter, morphed into a boulder-sized force of momentum that nearly crushed the Steelers.
The Steelers' missteps in the pivotal second quarter included Taylor and fellow cornerback William Gay getting beaten for big plays; Ben Roethlisberger throwing one interception and having another nullified by an offsides penalty; and center Doug Legursky sailing a snap over Roethlisberger's head, killing a promising Steelers drive at the end of the second quarter.
The Steelers overcame all that by staging a furious rally to tie the game with just under four minutes remaining. The offense got the ball back and appeared poised to give Shaun Suisham a chance at a potential game-winning field goal, but the drive fell apart after reaching the Broncos' 45-yard line.
The Steelers never got another opportunity.
"It's hard to win when they beat you and you beat yourselves," said Roethlisberger, who threw for 289 yards and a touchdown.
Tebow outdueled Roethlisberger, and he and Thomas had career days against what had been the NFL's No. 1 pass defense during the regular season.
Tebow threw for 316 yards — 118 more than Tom Brady had thrown for against the Steelers in late October — and Thomas averaged an astounding 51 yards per catch.
Taken with the 22nd (Thomas) and 25th picks (Tebow) in the 2010 NFL Draft, they effectively ended the Steelers' season.
Taylor, who had his worst game, did not talk to reporters afterward.
Roethlisberger hugged him in the locker room, and other veteran players offered the cornerback consolation.
"Ike played his tail off all year," Ward said. "We win as a team. We lose as a team."