The No. 6-seeded Steelers came to Denver and ambushed the No. 2-seeded Broncos, dealing a 34-17 defeat that would mark the closest the Broncos came to a Super Bowl in the first decade of the 21st century.
One day after defeating the Patriots in the divisional round, Broncos players weren’t openly hoping to avoid an AFC Championship trip to Indianapolis, which would have sent them back to the place where their last two playoff trips ended in the wild-card round. But you could sense the excitement in Colorado when Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt missed a last-gasp, game-tying field-goal attempt to send the Colts home as 21-18 losers. The No. 6 seed Steelers moved on, and the Broncos were set to host the AFC Championship.
“Pittsburgh came to us, and everybody was excited about that,” recalled wide receiver Rod Smith, “and I was like, ‘No. You’ve got to go play. It’s not about being excited about playing at home. It has nothing to do with that. You’ve got a football game. You can’t worry about all the other stuff.’
“Honestly, I saw a lot of our younger guys kind of got lost in the fact that we had a home game, instead of getting lost in the fact of getting in that playbook, being focused, being disciplined on the things that we need to do as a team.”
Early in the game, opportunities for takeaways were lost. Eventually, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger began peppering the Broncos secondary with passes. Cornerback Darrent Williams was hurt and less effective than normal. And then, with the Steelers leading 17-3 and the Broncos needing to get to halftime and hit the reset button, Plummer tried to make a play—and instead threw a pass for Stephen Alexander that was intercepted.
It was 24-3 at halftime, and a second-half rally petered out in a 34-17 loss that was the Broncos’ most lopsided home playoff defeat.
“We were so close, and just picked a bad day for the whole team to have a bad day,” center Tom Nalen recalled seven years later.