The Steelers loaded up late Sunday to stop what they knew Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos could do when they run the football.
They never expected what they saw instead.
Tebow, leader of the league's best rushing offense and its next-to-worst passing game, repeatedly carved up the Steelers' secondary with long completions, none bigger than an 80-yard touchdown on the first play of overtime that brought a stunning end to their AFC wild-card game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Tebow's long pass and Demaryius Thomas' even longer run produced a 29-23 victory that according to the NFL's seeding system doesn't qualify as an upset, but from every practical standpoint does.
The fourth-seeded Broncos (9-8), champions of the AFC West, move on to face top-seeded New England Saturday night in Foxborough, Mass.
The Steelers (12-5), burdened by a pair of regular-season losses to the Baltimore Ravens that dropped them into wild-card status and beaten up down the stretch, couldn't stop five long pass plays by Tebow, each more devastating than the last.
Tebow, who attempted only 21 passes and completed only 10, threw for a career-high 316 yards and two touchdowns without an interception and also ran for 50 yards and a score against the NFL's No. 1-ranked defense.
"The number of attempts wasn't surprising," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "The number of long completions was."
Tomlin pointed to the Steelers' inability to tackle Denver receivers after the catch, particularly Thomas, who had four receptions for 204 yards and ran unfettered through the Steelers' secondary all afternoon.
On the winning touchdown -- as in so many other situations Sunday -- the Steelers were in "zero" coverage with nearly every defender committed to stopping the run.
Instead, Tebow locked on to Thomas, who cut inside Ike Taylor and behind safety Ryan Mundy and caught the ball near midfield. Thomas veered to his right toward Denver's sideline and pushed away Mundy on a final sprint for the end zone.
It was the first game decided under the NFL's new overtime rules, designed to prevent a playoff games from ending on a field goal on the opening drive, but those rules never went into effect.
Tebow made sure of that, and afterward he celebrated the unlikely win alongside teammates with whom he overcame a 1-4 start.
"I thought the timing was great," said Broncos coach John Fox, whose team lost its final three regular-season games. "(Tebow) stepped up in a huge way tonight."
At the other end of the emotional spectrum was Taylor, burned on at least three long passes, including a 51-yard reception by Thomas that set up Denver's first touchdown.
Taylor sat in a chair afterward with his head in his hands. He declined interview requests. Above his locker, a piece of wood bearing a placard with his uniform number had been smashed away.
"It wasn't one man who lost the game, even if he had a bad day," linebacker James Farrior said. "Ike is the reason we were here."
The Steelers, already missing center Maurkice Pouncey and safety Ryan Clark, lost nose tackle Casey Hampton and defensive end Brett Keisel to injuries in the first half.
But after squandering an early 6-0 lead, they were able to climb back from a 20-6 deficit and force overtime on Ben Roethlisberger's 31-yard pass to Jerricho Cotchery with 3 minutes, 48 seconds to play in regulation.
"(We had) a good feeling, but they're a good team," Roethlisberger said. "It's hard to win when they beat you and you beat yourself."
Veteran receiver Hines Ward, one of several Steelers who face uncertain futures with the team as the offseason begins, said he wasn't ready to contemplate what comes next. He was too busy dealing with the shock from this stunning finish.
"This will (rank) with some of the worst games we've ever lost," Ward said.
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