By Mark Schiff
With all four road teams winning their wild-card games this weekend, the divisional round is now set and the Broncos will face a sixth-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers team that beat them less than a month ago. Oddly enough, this year marks the tenth anniversary of a sixth-seeded Steelers team traveling to Denver and beating the Broncos en route to Pittsburgh’s fourth Super Bowl title.
Sunday’s meeting will be Denver’s eighth playoff game against the Steelers, the most of any opponent (Denver owns a 4-3 advantage in the series). And although just two of their games have been in the conference championship game, in five of their seven meetings, the winner has gone on to play in the Super Bowl.
If history is any indicator, a win on Sunday could mean a Super Bowl appearance for the victor. With that in mind, let’s take a look back at each of the Broncos-Steelers playoff contents.
1977 Divisional Round – Denver 34, Pittsburgh 21 – Mile High Stadium
After fifteen-plus years of futility, the Broncos got their first-ever playoff win on Christmas Eve of 1977 as the famed Orange Crush defense picked off Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw three times and Denver scored 13 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to pull away. The next week, the Broncos would beat the Oakland Raiders in the a classic playoff win before losing to the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XII.
1978 Divisional Round – Pittsburgh 33, Denver 10 – Three Rivers Stadium
The following year, the Steelers would get their revenge on the Broncos in a divisional round rematch. After Denver staked an early 3-0 lead, the Steelers came back to take a 19-10 halftime lead, then put the game away as Bradshaw threw two long fourth quarter touchdown passes. The Steelers would go on to beat the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII for their third Super Bowl championship.
1984 Divisional Round – Pittsburgh 24, Denver 17 – Mile High Stadium
John Elway may have gone down as one of the clutch players in NFL history, but Pittsburgh’s 24-17 upset of the 13-3 Broncos came before he learned to finish. Elway had two costly turnovers, the first coming on the goal line after Denver blocked a punt by Pittsburgh’s Craig Colquitt (father of Denver’s punter Britton) and the second leading to Pittsburgh’s game-winning touchdown with 2:45 to play. Denver’s surprising loss thwarted a highly-anticipated championship game showdown between Elway and fellow second-year QB Dan Marino of the Dolphins.
1989 Divisional Round – Denver 24, Pittsburgh 23 – Mile High Stadium
By Elway’s second playoff clash with the Steelers, his reputation for late-game heroics was firmly established and Denver’s playoff win over Pittsburgh further burnished his legacy. The Steelers built a 17-7 lead in the second quarter before Denver’s offense started getting it going in the second half, with Elway hitting Vance Johnson for a game-tying 37-yard touchdown in the third quarter. But Pittsburgh took a 23-17 lead in the fourth quarter before Elway lead a late-game touchdown drive and the defense sealed it with Tyrone Braxton’s fumble recovery. Denver would defeat the Browns for the third time in the AFC Championship before losing to San Francisco in Super Bowl XXIV.
1997 AFC Championship Game – Denver 24, Pittsburgh 21 – Three Rivers Stadium
The final stop on Denver’s legendary “revenge tour” leading to their victory over the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXII, the Broncos road win over the Steelers in the AFC Championship game atoned for the team’s Week 15 loss to Pittsburgh. Elway threw two touchdowns in the last two minutes of the second quarter as Denver raced out to a 24-14 lead at halftime. But former CU quarterback Kordell Stewart brought his team back late in the fourth, before tight end Shannon Sharpe picked up a huge first-down catch to ice the game and send the Broncos to the Super Bowl.
2005 AFC Championship Game – Pittsburgh 34, Denver 17 – Invesco Field at Mile High
Denver’s lopsided loss to the Steelers in the 2005 AFC Championship was a humbling end to the team’s best season since winning their second Super Bowl. Pittsburgh’s shocking upset of Peyton Manning and the Colts in the divisional round set up the No. 2-seeded Broncos with home field advantage in the AFC championship game. However, this time the tables were reversed, as the Steelers scored two quick touchdowns to finish the first half with what proved to be an insurmountable 24-3 lead.
2011 Divisional Round – Denver 29, Pittsburgh 23 – Sports Authority Field at Mile High
And then there’s the team’s most recent meeting, the culmination of Tebow-mania and one of the most memorable playoff wins in Broncos history. Hitting a series of perfectly thrown long balls, Tim Tebow had the best game of his career as Denver built a commanding 20-6 halftime lead. But the Broncos were only able to score three points in the second half and the Steelers stormed back to force overtime. That led to one of the most electrifying finishes in team history, as Tebow hit Demaryius Thomas on a crossing route and the receiver took it 80-yards to the house on the first play of overtime.
So there’s been no shortage of memorable moments for both teams over their storied playoff history. The Broncos look to write another exciting chapter when they take on the Steelers Jan. 17 at 2:40pm, right here on CBS4 Denver.
Mark Schiff is a freelance writer and music journalist for AXS.com. In 2013, his coverage of the Seattle Seahawks ended in heartbreak when they defeated the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. Now covering his beloved hometown team, his knowledge and passion for pro football has resulted in multiple fantasy football championships. Find him on Twitter at @mihilites.