Insider: The Perfect Storm That Led to the Upset

Wild Card Weekend featured just one game with a single-digit outcome and the Broncos 29-23 upset victory over the Steelers was the most viewed and exciting game of the weekend. Find out the circumstances which caused this upset.

As everyone knows, Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow played the game of his life as he completed bomb after bomb and shredded the Steelers top-ranked defense. Tebow deserves as much credit as he’s getting but let’s look at how we got here.

Exactly one month ago the Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the Cleveland Browns on a Thursday night. The big news from that game was Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger having his ankle rolled up on by Browns defensive tackle Scott Paxson. Although many had feared his foot or even leg was broken, Ben returned in the second half and was mildly effective, helping lead Pittsburgh to a 14-3 victory.

“You can’t say enough about our quarterback,” Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown said. “It’s amazing to play with a guy like that who exemplifies that type of toughness.”

With an opportunity to win the game late, Cleveland was driving down 7-3. Browns quarterback Colt McCoy was hit in the helmet by Steelers linebacker James Harrison which temporarily knocked him out. A woozy McCoy later returned only to take a red zone sack and then throw a terrible interception, thus ending the game.

The outcome was important as the Steelers remained in a virtual tie with the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North title race, despite Baltimore owning the tiebreak advantage. If Cleveland had stuck with backup quarterback Seneca Wallace and scored in their first-and-goal situation and won the game, perhaps Pittsburgh would have concentrated more on getting their starting quarterback healthy rather than chasing a first-round bye.

“We better lick our wounds pretty quickly because we have a quick turnaround here,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.

The next week a completely immobile Ben Roethlisberger started at San Francisco and the Steelers were soundly defeated, 20-3. Roethlisberger took additional abuse and the loss, coupled with a Ravens defeat by San Diego kept the Steelers with an identical record.

After resting Roethlisberger for just one game, a blowout victory against St. Louis, Ben returned for more abuse in the regular season finale. Although the Steelers won 13-9, Roethlisberger struggled and Pittsburgh lost starting running back Rashard Mendenhall for the season with a torn ACL.

“It’s not good, of course, when a guy goes down in open grass and is not touched by anyone,” Tomlin said of Mendenhall’s injury.

Pittsburgh played two games with Cleveland which were virtually meaningless in the standings, but saw Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey and Rashard Mendenhall all be severely injured.

While the Steelers were limping around and winning meaningless games against Cleveland and St. Louis, the Denver Broncos nearly watched their AFC West title slip away with consecutive losses to New England, Buffalo and Kansas City. Starting quarterback Tim Tebow was a turnover machine and there were rumors that he could get replaced in passing situations in their Wild Card round game.

With Tebow struggling to throw a football in the ocean from the beach in recent weeks, the Steelers emphasized mostly Cover-1 or Cover-0 coverages in Sunday’s game to stop the league’s top rushing attack.

“They were the No. 1 defense and we are the No. 1 offense running the ball,” Broncos wide receiver DeMaryius Thomas who caught four passes for 204 yards said. “So, I feel like they wanted to make a statement and stop the run. I don’t know if they forgot about the passing game. The last couple of games that we had, we were not passing the ball that great.”

One key missing component of the Steelers game plan was starting free safety Ryan Clark, whose sickle-cell trait prevented him from playing in the high altitude of Denver. Clark’s sideline to sideline coverage ability was clearly missed as there would prove to be blown coverages all over the field.

Denver Broncos legend and general manager John Elway instructed his young quarterback to, “pull the trigger” earlier this week as Tebow was leaving big plays on the field due to indecisiveness. Tebow clearly took the advice to heart.

The Broncos tried to establish the running game early on without much success. Denver recorded just six yards of total offense through one period of play and it looked like the last month of games revisited. Then Tebow “pulled the trigger” on a 51-yard perfectly dropped ball to DeMaryius Thomas. Two plays later the second-year quarterback would place a nice pass in the hands of Eddie Royal for a 30-yard touchdown to get his team on the scoreboard.

“I want to give my teammates all the credit, they made me look better than I am,” Tebow modestly said following the game.

Tebow was partially right. His much-maligned wide receivers made great catches and showed explosiveness and his offensive line proved to be nothing short of a wall against a high pressure defense as they allowed no sacks. But Tebow deserves his fair share of credit for delivering on big play after big play with accurate throws, something he hadn’t previously shown capable to do at the NFL level.

“They say (Tebow) couldn’t throw. They said we wouldn’t be able to run the ball on them. We did that. I wonder what they’re going to say next week,” veteran Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey defiantly said following the game.

On the game’s final play, Tim Tebow hit DeMaryius Thomas in stride and one stiff arm and 80 yards later the Broncos did the impossible and advanced with a quarterback who didn’t complete half of his passes during the regular season. For the record, he didn’t complete half of his throws in this game either, but he made all the big throws.

A questionable NFL rule that causes Wild Card teams to play on the road of division champs with worse records didn’t allow a healthy Ryan Clark to play. Mike Tomlin’s decision to chase a division title instead of resting key players caused Ben Roethlisberger to not fully heal from his injury, and likely caused Pro Bowlers Maurkice Pouncey and Rashard Mendenhall to miss the game (and the rest of the season). A bad snap before halftime by Pouncey’s fill-in, Doug Legursky didn’t allow the Steelers a field goal attempt in a game which went to overtime.

For Pittsburgh, untimely injuries, a poor defensive scheme and an inability to keep their quarterback upright helped lead to this upset. The Cleveland Browns also had a small hand in the loss, but most of all the Denver Broncos superior offensive scheme and big plays are the reason why the Steelers are going home and the Broncos are getting ready for a rematch with the Patriots.