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Kovacevic: Steelers never found that spark

| Monday, Jan. 9, 2012

DENVER — One locker room was silent, stunned and bitter. The other was dancing on the field in full uniform a half-hour after the game.

One sideline had been riddled with limping, battered bodies. The other was bouncing, eager to embrace the chance of a lifetime.

One team looked old, slow and sluggish in its performance. The other was led by a dashing, young quarterback who — for reasons that maybe only a Disney matinee will fully explain someday — continues to defy the odds and capture America's imagination.

Broncos 29, Steelers 23.

Believe it.

It really happened that Tim Tebow hooked up with Demaryius Thomas on an 80-yard bomb off the first play of overtime. And that reliable cornerback Ike Taylor was scorched on that score and 204 yards in total. And that a quarterback who had been essentially left for dead after passing for 60 yards against Kansas City somehow carved up the NFL's No. 1 defense for 316 yards.

Yes, 316, as in John 3:16, the ultra-religious Tebow's favorite biblical passage.

Believe every bit of it.

And be very sure that Tebow believed it possible, something I'd picked up on throughout my week here with the Broncos. For all his shortcomings — and those were hard to find Sunday — the kid oozes confidence.

"I'm just so blessed to have an opportunity to be the quarterback for the Denver Broncos and play in front of such great fans and with great teammates," Tebow said. "I'm just very thankful for the platform God has given me."

The smile was wide enough to touch Wyoming.

So I ask: Where was that spark on the Steelers' side?

Not talking so much about Tebow here. I get that no more than a handful of GMs would trade their quarterbacks for Tebow, and there's good reason for it. But I also get that a big part of what was missing all season long from this confounding group was that one extra jolt of ... something, anything.

What happened to the Steelers' aura, their confidence, their intimidation factor and the other intangibles that made them what they were, oh, just a year ago?

One step inside the Denver locker room, and it was easy to see most of these players had never been there, never done that.

"This team hasn't been in the playoffs since 2005, and we win like this?" Thomas almost shouted. "Awesome!"

The Steelers had been there, and they acted like it.

Take it from James Harrison, who bit off each syllable with his assessment of the team's effort: "They played well enough to win, and we played poorly enough to lose."

And this from James Farrior: "They came out and made way more plays than we thought they were capable of making."


You bet.

That's partly on Mike Tomlin, Bruce Arians and Dick LeBeau for clearly being outcoached by John Fox and his staff. Unless you can find a better way to explain the offense's frustrations and the previously bumbling Broncos running up 447 total yards.

I asked LeBeau, in particular, about the inexplicable failure to blitz Tebow more often and pressure him into mistakes.

"We did better in the second half," LeBeau replied. "Give the kid credit."

Fine, but there's blame to assign, too.

Or maybe not. Maybe it's past time for that.

Maybe it's time, now officially, that Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Tomlin ask hard questions about this roster. Entering this season, they stuck by the players who had taken them to the Super Bowl just eight months earlier. That was absolutely the right move.

But that's over.

It isn't just that Farrior, Harrison, Hines Ward, Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton are 33 or older. It isn't just that Taylor and most of the secondary, which had its statistics propped by lousy offensive opponents, is 30 or older. It's not even the sad sight yesterday of Keisel, Hampton and others getting hurt, seemingly every other play.

It's that it looked like the average age of this roster dragged everyone down.

Look at Baltimore and the decidedly different approach the Ravens took last offseason, shipping out a few veterans, keeping a few and allowing the youngsters to pick up the slack when the Ray Lewises went down.

I thought it would knock the Ravens backward. Instead, it gave them fresh life.

I raised that example with Rooney after this game, and the man with the final say on these things didn't exactly give a ringing endorsement for keeping everyone together again: "That's something for us to sit down and consider in the days and weeks to come. Right now, the loss just hurts."

Sure does. The Steelers of old would have devoured this quarterback and this opponent.

Those Steelers are done.

Photo Galleries

Steelers vs Broncos AFC Wild Card

Steelers vs Broncos   AFC Wild Card

The Broncos defeat the Steelers in overtime of their AFC Wild Card playoff game Sunday January 8, 2012 in Denver.

Additional Information:

Game balls

Columnist Dejan Kovacevic selects the game's top performers:

Tim Tebow, Broncos, QB: Three lousy games, then a great fourth one with an OT bomb• A microcosm of his strange but scintillating season.

Demaryius Thomas, Broncos, WR: Tormented Ike Taylor • four catches for 204 yards • like no opponent all year.

Isaac Redman, Steelers, RB: No one missed Rashard Mendenhall, given his
121 yards on 17 carries. He was a whirling dervish.

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