Denver, CO – And on the second day of the NFL playoffs, the Denver Broncos rose again.
Tim Tebow and Demaryius Thomas connected for an 80-yard touchdown on the first play of overtime, giving the Broncos a 29-23 victory over the Steelers and providing a stunning ending to their AFC Wild Card contest.
Now Denver, which won its division despite losing its final three regular- season games and finishing the year 8-8, is onto the second round of the playoffs. The Broncos will face top-seeded New England on Saturday.
Denver, of course, installed Tebow as its starting quarterback in Week 7 after starting the season 1-4. He then led the Broncos to wins in seven of their next eight games, a stretch that included three overtime victories and a string of improbable late-game comebacks.
The Broncos' magic seemed to run out with their season-ending losing streak, but Sunday, they re-discovered it, building a 20-6 lead at halftime behind an extremely productive second quarter.
Pittsburgh came back to tie the game and force overtime, but then...
...the Broncos won the coin toss and started a drive after a touchback...
...Tebow dropped back in a play-action fake and spotted Thomas about 20 yards downfield, delivering a strike the receiver caught in stride...
...Thomas streaked across midfield and delivered a stiff-arm to Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor, then out-raced two defenders to the end zone...
...and 11 seconds into overtime, the Broncos were celebrating wildly and Tebow was on one knee, having authored the best victory of his young NFL career.
The second-year quarterback finished with a career-high 316 passing yards and two touchdowns, and ran for another score in Denver's first playoff appearance since 2005.
He completed only 10 passes, but made the most of them as the Broncos repeatedly beat the Steelers' secondary. Thomas caught four passes for 204 yards, while Eddie Royal had a 30-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter.
Part of that was due to Tebow having and creating a lot of time to throw, but Pittsburgh also played without safety Ryan Clark because he has a sickle cell trait, and high altitude can lead to health problems.
Clark was one of several key Steelers to sit out of the contest. Running backs Rashard Mendenhall and Mewelde Moore, and center Maurkice Pouncey also missed the game, while defensive tackle Casey Hampton and defensive end Brett Keisel suffered injuries during the game.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was battling a high ankle sprain, and threw for 289 yards and a touchdown, with one interception. Isaac Redman totaled a career-high 121 rushing yards, but they couldn't lead the Steelers to a decisive score late in the fourth quarter. Roethlisberger was sacked three times and fumbled during the unsuccessful drive.
For how the game ended, the defending AFC champions nearly won Sunday's contest. Shaun Suisham connected on a 37-yard field goal to bring the Steelers within 23-16 with 10 minutes to play, and Broncos running back Willis McGahee fumbled near midfield on Denver's ensuing drive.
After Pittsburgh reached the Denver 31, Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey nearly picked off Roethlisberger's end-zone try to Mike Wallace, but couldn't hold on. Roethlisberger tried another touchdown pass on the next play and succeeded, thanks to a remarkable catch by Jerricho Cotchery in the end zone.
The receiver got his hands on the ball, then held on as Denver defensive back Rafael Bush hit him, tying the contest with 3:48 to go.
Just more than two minutes later, Pittsburgh had forced Denver to punt and began another drive at its own 24. Roethlisberger -- himself no stranger to big plays -- completed passes of 17 and 18 yards to bring the ball into Denver territory.
With half a minute to play, Suisham was warming up on the sideline, and all signs pointed to Pittsburgh having a chance to at least kick the game-winning field goal.
But the Steelers lost that chance after Broncos defensive end Elvis Dumervil got into the backfield and forced the ball from Roethlisberger's hands. Pittsburgh lost 11 yards on the play and the Steelers couldn't get into field goal range.
Pittsburgh, which finished the regular season 12-4 and didn't win the AFC North because it lost both games against Baltimore, never got a chance in overtime.
New playoff overtime rules state that both teams get a possession unless the team with the ball first scores a touchdown. Had the Broncos kicked a field goal, the Steelers would have gotten the ball. But Roethlisberger never touched the ball in overtime. Tebow and Thomas, in one swift play, made sure of that.
The Steelers certainly had their chances to build a big lead, advancing deep into Denver territory twice in the first quarter. But they settled for field goals from Suisham both times, and carried a 6-0 lead into the second quarter.
The Broncos went in front thanks to one quick drive. Tebow didn't complete a pass in the opening quarter, but on the second play of the next quarter he found Thomas for a 51-yard gain. Two plays later, Tebow threaded a pass to the end zone to Royal, who made the catch despite tight coverage from William Gay.
Tebow delivered more big plays on Denver's next drive, including a 58-yard pass down the middle to Thomas, who shed coverage by Taylor with a sharp open- field fake.
That connection brought the ball to the Steelers' 12-yard line, and Tebow reached the end zone on an eight-yard keeper by plowing through a hole in the middle of the line. Matt Prater hit field goals of 20 and 28 yards to complete the 20-point quarter.
Pittsburgh's offense struggled in the first half. Aside from the two field goals, the Steelers punted four times and Roethlisberger was intercepted by Quinton Carter.
They had only one possession in the third quarter, but made the most of it with an 87-yard touchdown drive. Redman initially appeared to score on a long run through the middle. But the touchdown ruling was overturned with a review that found the ball fell short of the goal line by inches. Still, the 33-yard run brought Pittsburgh to the one, and Wallace ran it in from there, pulling the Steelers within 20-13 with 4:29 left in the frame.
Prater kicked a 35-yarder nearly two minutes into the fourth.
Broncos receiver Eric Decker was injured while attempting to catch the ball in the second quarter. He was hit in the knee by Steelers linebacker James Harrison...The Broncos' last postseason contest was a 34-17 loss to the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game following the 2005 season...The Steelers had given up the fewest points (227) in the NFL during the regular season.