DENVER - Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward was on the sideline getting ready for the team's offense to take the field in overtime.
In a matter of seconds, Ward and his Steelers teammates were heading to the locker room for the final time this season.
Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, who orchestrated several miracle comebacks during the regular season, completed an 80-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas on the first play of overtime to lift the Broncos to a 29-23 victory over the shocked Steelers on Sunday in an AFC wild-card game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
"I was talking amongst all the receivers, just going over some plays,'' Ward said. "We look up, and [Thomas] is running down the field for a touchdown. That's how fast it happens.''
The Steelers' season came to an end after a 12-4 regular season and finished their hopes of earning another Super Bowl berth. The Broncos, now 9-8, advanced to Saturday night's AFC divisional round game against the New England Patriots.
"It's shocking,'' Ward said. "I never thought that one play all the way down the field for a touchdown in the first overtime; that was more shocking than anything.''
The new overtime rules would have allowed the Steelers offense to earn a chance to possess the ball if the Steelers defense would held the Broncos to a field goal. But the touchdown prevented that from happening.
"They made a play, and they won the game,'' Steelers tight end Heath Miller said.
The Tebow-to-Thomas connection crushed the Steelers the entire game. Tebow completed 10-of-21 passes for 316 yards and two touchdowns, and Thomas caught four of the passes for 204 yards.
Denver finished with 447 total yards against the Steelers' top-ranked defense. Pittsburgh cornerback Ike Taylor was the man responsible for covering Thomas and was unavailable for comment after the game.
"On defense, we felt like we let the team down,'' Steelers linebacker James Farrior said. "We felt like we had a good grasp of what they were going to do to us or try to do to us. They came out and made way more plays than we thought they were capable of making.''
The Broncos began their offensive explosion on their first possession of the second quarter after gaining a total of 8 net yards in the first quarter.
Facing a third-and-12, Tebow waited for Thomas to get behind Taylor down the left sideline and threw a 51-yard pass to him. Two plays later, Tebow and Eddie Royal connected on a 30-yard touchdown pass in the right corner of the end zone, over Steelers cornerback William Gay, to give Denver a 7-6 advantage.
Following a Pittsburgh punt, Tebow and Thomas victimized Taylor again for a 58-yard hook-up to the Steelers' 12-yard line. Two plays later, Tebow followed guard Zane Beadles into the end zone on an 8-yard run.
"[The Broncos] went out [in the second quarter] and had a couple of big plays,'' Farrior said. "They got the momentum rolling, and we never really got it back.''
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger kept the huge momentum swing in Denver's favor by overthrowing Miller on the Steelers' next possession, and rookie safety Quinton Carter intercepted the ball and returned it to the Pittsburgh 18. Matt Prater kicked a 20-yard field goal to make it 17-6 less than halfway through the second quarter.
Tebow and the Broncos weren't finished in the second quarter. The second-year quarterback looked off a few receivers and found tight end Daniel Fells streaking down the middle of the field for a 40-yard pickup. Prater added a 28-yard field goal to send the stunned Steelers into the locker room, trailing, 20-6.
"A lot is said; a lot was written; a lot of critique on [Tebow],'' Broncos coach John Fox said. "And I thought he stepped up in a huge way tonight. I think he was a big part of us winning the game.''
Pittsburgh began its comeback on its first possession of the third quarter when they completed three third-down chances, including one on a 32-yard run by Isaac Redman to the Denver 1-yard line. The 87-yard drive lasted nearly 6 minutes and culminated with a 1-yard Mike Wallace touchdown run on an end-around.
After a pass interference penalty on Taylor helped the Broncos get their third Prater field goal of the game, a 35-yarder at the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Steelers cut the deficit to 23-16 with 10 minutes left in the game. Shaun Suisham kicked a 37-yard field goal after Redman set it up with a 28-yard run.
The Steelers then tied the game at 23-23 with 3:48 left in regulation when they drove 55 yards on seven plays after a Willis McGahee fumble. One play after Roethlisberger was nearly intercepted by Champ Bailey in the end zone, he scrambled out of the pocket and threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to Jerricho Cotchery.
"You have a good feeling [at that time],'' Roethlisberger said. "But, they're a good team. It's hard to win when they beat you, and you beat yourself.''
The Steelers gained an opportunity to pull out the game in regulation by reaching midfield, but Roethlisberger was sacked by Elvis Dumervil and Bailey tipped away a pass intended for Ward.
"We were moving it, and we had a shot,'' Roethlisberger said.
The Steelers wasted little time in producing the game's first points by taking the opening kickoff and driving 53 yards, thanks mostly to a 33-yard pass from Roethlisberger to Miller. Suisham kicked a 45-yard field goal to give the Steelers a 3-0 advantage.
Later in the first quarter, the Steelers drove 47 yards with Redman picking up 32 of them on the ground. Suisham hit a 38-yard field goal with 23 seconds left in the first quarter to make it 6-0.
Redman finished with 121 yards, playing for the injured Rashard Mendenhall. His effort was one of the few bright spots for a team that will face an offseason of questions about its ability to stay among the NFL elite teams.
"I'm not even thinking about that,'' Ward said. "My heart is toward my teammates and toward this game. To end it like that in overtime, to go 12-4 and have it come down to an overtime loss the way it did is sad. This will stick with [us] a lot as one of the worst games we ever lost.''