The NFL Network recently aired The Game of the Week, which featured the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Denver Broncos facing each other in the AFC Championship on January 22, 2006.
Considering the game was in Denver, and the Steelers were playing their third playoff game in as many weeks, Bronco fans felt their team’s return to the Super Bowl was very probable. When this day was over, however, Bronco fans would have to deal with the fact the season was over and the Broncos ended up one game short of making their seventh Super Bowl appearance.
Over the years, Bronco fans had become accustomed to watching a quarterback with the number seven on his back lead his team to victory. This day was no different, but the quarterback wasn’t Elway, it was Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger who led his team to a conference championship. Elway, who was seven years into retirement, may have been on the mind of many Bronco fans during the 2006 AFC Championship as they watched Jake Plummer, one of Elway’s successors, make costly mistakes at crucial times during the game that caused momentum to shift one way or another.
Rather than rely on the powerful running game the Steelers were known for, they opted to let Roethlisberger and the passing game be their primary weapon. The Broncos, who were undefeated at home during the regular season in 2005, missed a couple opportunities on the opening drive that could have quickly allowed them to seize momentum. The Steelers overcame a near interception by Champ Bailey and were fortunate Willie Parker’s fumble was reversed when Bill Cower threw the red flag, challenging the fact that Parker was down when the ball came loose. Even though these two plays didn’t go the Broncos way, the Steelers were still held to a 47-yard field goal by Jeff Reed.
On the Broncos second offensive possession of the game, Joey Porter applied pressure to Plummer and caused him to lose the ball. Steelers nose tackle, KC Hampton, fell on the fumble, giving Pittsburgh the first turnover of the game and the ball on the Broncos 38-yard line. Pittsburgh quickly capitalized on the turnover by scoring the game’s first touchdown when Roethlisberger connected with Cedric Wilson.
Early in the second quarter, the Broncos found themselves down 10-0, a hard pill to swallow for a team that had never lost a championship game when it was played in Denver. With a lot of football to play, the Broncos offense found some rhythm and was able to drive down the field. Once inside the red zone, however, the drive stalled and forced the Broncos to settle for a Jason Elam 23-yard field goal, which brought the Broncos back to within seven points, 10-3. The Broncos field goal did very little to slow the momentum of the Pittsburgh offense; if anything, it awakened a sleeping giant. The Steelers, by converting three third downs, once again were knocking on the door of the end zone. Jerome Bettis powered his way up the middle for a three-yard touchdown, giving the Steelers a commanding 17-3. With just under two minutes remaining in the first half, the Broncos needed to drive down the field, and if nothing else, kick a field goal so they could end the half with a bit of momentum on their side. Rather than sustain a drive, Plummer threw on the first down and had his pass picked off by Steeler Ike Taylor. Instead of cutting into the Steelers’ lead by halftime, Denver’s goal now was to prevent them from adding to it. The goal was still a possibility after a Jerome Bettis touchdown run was called back due to the Steelers lining up in an illegal formation when Hines Ward lined up on the line of scrimmage, rather than off of it. Hines Ward made up for this error on the next play when he was the recipient of Roethlisberger’s second touchdown pass of the afternoon. As the second quarter came to an end, the Broncos were down 24-3. With only thirty minutes of football remaining, the Broncos definitely had a huge mountain in front of them if they were going to be the team that represented the AFC in Super Bowl XL.
As the second half started, the Steelers offense continued to drive down the field; keeping the Broncos offense on the sideline, a place that prevented them from cutting into the Steelers 21 point lead. The Broncos offense, which lead the league in time of possession, was totally helpless, as the Steelers converted third down after third down. Finally, the Bronco defense stopped the Steelers on third down, forcing the Steelers to punt. When Steelers punter, Chris Gardocki, was called upon to make his first punt of the day and ended up pinning the Broncos on their own two-yard line, it felt like nothing was going the Broncos way.
As the game wore on, the Broncos offense continued to struggle and received its first break of the second half when Mike Shanahan challenged a call after a Gardocki punt was downed inside the five yard line. The referees ruled the Steelers defender’s foot was on the goal line when he made contact with the ball, giving the Broncos the ball on the twenty yard line, instead of inside the five yard line. The Broncos were in a position that they had to capitalize on this break and score. The Broncos quickly went to work and Jake Plummer, after leading the offense down the field, threw his first touchdown pass of the game when he connected with Ashley Lelie for a 30-yard score. With approximately 3-1/2 minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Broncos were still down 24-10.
Any hope that was gained when the Broncos scored was quickly subdued as the Ben Roethlisberger-to-Cedric Wilson connection continued to frustrate the Bronco defense, as well as the fans. Eventually the drive stalled when Roethlisberger was sacked for only the second time. The Steelers settled for a 42-yard field goal, which extended their lead to 27-10 early in the fourth quarter.
Knowing the Broncos had not called a running play since the second quarter and the fact they were down seventeen points, the Steelers were expecting the Broncos to pass. Plummer met their expectation and threw on first down. Larry Foote was ready for him and intercepted Plummer’s pass. Fortunately, Pittsburgh was unable to move the ball on the following possession and went three-and-out.
With less than twelve minutes remaining, these were desperate times for the Denver Broncos. Jake Plummer did not give up and made plays by scrambling around until he was able to find the Broncos open receiver. Jake Plummer’s effort, along with three costly penalties by the Steelers, gave the Broncos the ball at the three yard line. Mike Anderson capped the drive off and decreased the Steeler lead to ten by running up the middle and scoring a rushing touchdown. With just under eight minutes remaining, would the Broncos have enough time to catch the Steelers?
Once again, the Steelers went three-and-out, giving the Broncos a glimmer of hope. Jake Plummer’s scrambling that was so beneficial in the previous drive, unfortunately, wasn’t as effective and the Steelers sacked Plummer; forcing the Broncos to go for it on fourth down. Plummer dropped back, attempted to buy time by moving out of the pocket, and then fumbled the ball when he was hit by Steeler defender Clark Haggans. For Jake Plummer and the rest of the Broncos, their Super Bowl dreams were over. With just over three minutes remaining in the game, Roethlisberger put the final nail in the coffin by diving into the end zone and putting the Steelers up 34-17.
As the Steelers celebrated and made plans for Super Bowl XL, Bronco fans began exiting the stadium. The statement, “what comes around, goes around,” is cliché, but it is so true. When the Broncos won their first Super Bowl in 1998, they beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship held in Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, since the 2006 AFC Championship, the Steelers have continued to excel; appearing in a total of three Super Bowls and winning two of those games, while the Broncos have failed to make the playoffs.
As a new season is right around the corner, let’s hope the Broncos will use this upcoming season as an opportunity to build a foundation for a championship-caliber team. As fans, this is a valuable lesson to always cherish the times when our team is successful because, “what comes around, goes around.”