The 2005 season was the Broncos’ best of the first decade of the 21st century. They went 13-3, finished with an undefeated home record in the regular season and won the AFC West for the first time since 1998. Quarterback Jake Plummer refashioned himself as “No Mistake Jake,” leading a balanced offense that was complemented by a swarming defense featuring one of the best secondaries in the game, led by Champ Bailey and John Lynch.

But the Broncos’ 46th season will also be remembered as the one that got away.

After Bailey’s 100-yard interception return off Tom Brady that helped end the Patriots’ league-record 10-game playoff winning streak, the Broncos watched as the top-seeded Colts were upset by the sixth-seeded Steelers one day later, bringing the AFC Championship Game to Invesco Field at Mile High for the first time. Broncos fans rejoiced at their team avoiding a potential third consecutive postseason trip to Indianapolis after losing there the previous two years by a combined 90-34 score.

But it turned into the textbook example of an old cliche: “Be careful what you wish for; you might get it.”

“Pittsburgh came to us, and everybody was excited about that,” recalled wide receiver Rod Smith years later, “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 made the kind of mistake he’d avoided all season, looking for Stephen Alexander in tight coverage. The pass was intercepted, and in short order, Pittsburgh held a 24-3 halftime lead.

A second-half rally petered out in a 34-17 loss that remains 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.

Pittsburgh went on to beat the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. The Broncos sat at home, muttering about what might have been, not knowing the defeat was a harbinger of dark days to come. It would be nearly six years before the Broncos played another postseason game.

2005 schedule

Date Opponent Score
9/11 at Miami Dolphins 10-34
9/18 San Diego Chargers 20-17
9/26 Kansas City Chiefs 30-10
10/2 at Jacksonville Jaguars 20-7
10/9 Washington Redskins 21-19
10/16 New England Patriots 28-20
10/23 at New York Giants 23-24
10/30 Philadelphia Eagles 49-21
11/13 at Oakland Raiders 31-17
11/20 New York Jets 27-0
11/24 at Dallas Cowboys (OT) 24-21
12/4 at Kansas City Chiefs 27-31
12/11 Baltimore Ravens 12-10
12/17 at Buffalo Bills 28-17
12/24 Oakland Raiders 22-3
12/31 at San Diego Chargers 23-7
1/14 New England Patriots (Divisional Playoff) 27-13
1/22 Pittsburgh Steelers (AFC Championship) 17-34

2005 offense

Pos Player Starts
QB Jake Plummer 16
RB Mike Anderson 15
RB Tatum Bell 1
FB Kyle Johnson 14
WR/PR Charlie Adams 2
WR Ashley Lelie 13
WR Rod Smith 16
TE Stephen Alexander 15
TE Jeb Putzier 4
C Tom Nalen 16
RT George Foster 16
LT Matt Lepsis 16
RG Cooper Carlisle 16
LG Ben Hamilton 16
K Jason Elam
KR/PR Darrent Williams
KR Roc Alexander

Record: 13-3
First Place, AFC West

2005 defense

Pos Player Starts
LDE Courtney Brown 13
DE Ebenezer Ekuban 4
RDE Trevor Pryce 16
LDT Michael Myers 15
RDT Gerard Warren 16
LB Keith Burns 1
WLB Ian Gold 16
SLB D.J. Williams 14
MLB Al Wilson 15
CB Champ Bailey 14
CB Domonique Foxworth 7
CB Lenny Walls 3
CB Darrent Williams 9
S Curome Cox 1
S Nick Ferguson 16
S John Lynch 16
P Todd Sauerbrun