DENVER - The Patriots knew they’d be getting a rematch in the divisional round when the Broncos and Steelers faced off yesterday in an AFC wild-card playoff game.
New England probably didn’t think it’d be getting this one.
The Broncos, an 8 1/2-point home underdog after finishing the regular season with an 8-8 record, shocked the defending conference champion Steelers with a 29-23 victory at Sports Authority Field thanks to an 80-yard touchdown pass from Tim Tebow to Demaryius Thomas on the first play of overtime.
The Broncos’ victory gives them a chance to avenge their 41-23 home loss to the Patriots in Week 15 on Dec. 18.
Denver led that game, 16-7, in the second quarter after totaling 218 yards (167 yards rushing). The Patriots scored the next 27 points to take control of the game as the defense settled down. New England allowed just 10 points and 175 yards in the final three quarters.
The Patriots’ victory ended a six-game winning streak by the Broncos and started the three-game losing streak they finished the regular season with.
“We were on a roll and we lose a game like that and it [expletive], but it was almost like a reality check,’’ Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said. “We weren’t playing as good as we know we were. To have that loss, it kind of woke us up a little bit.
“We’re the same team, we just play different. We play harder, smarter, more physical I think - that’s the only way you’ve got to play in these playoffs.’’
The Broncos’ victory over the Steelers was their first win since Dec. 11.
Said Broncos cornerback Andre Goodman, “I think what we were able to do during the stretch where we were winning games: keeping the score down on defense, making big plays on offense, and then special teams complementing us and giving ourselves a chance to win in the fourth quarter, we did none of that against the Patriots. I don’t think we’re a different team. When we don’t play our game, the score gets out of hand the way it did.’’
The Patriots had 83 yards of total offense in the first quarter against the Broncos, 79 from quarterback Tom Brady.
Over the final three quarters, the Patriots had 368 total yards - 231 from Brady and 137 on the ground.
The Broncos think they learned from the first matchup, and they feel that playing a similar offensive team in Pittsburgh - which has an elite quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger and a plethora of targets - was good practice for facing the Patriots.
“I knew how they were going to attack us,’’ Bailey said. “One thing about them is they have a smart quarterback, smart coaching staff, so they’re going to find the weaknesses and the holes and it’s tough. We’ve got a nice chess match coming up next week and we’ll get it figured out one way or another.’’
The Broncos limited Roethlisberger, who was playing on a sprained left ankle and with center Maurkice Pouncey out and left tackle Max Starks knocked out, to a 75.9 passer rating on 22 of 40 for 289 yards and one touchdown against one INT.
“We had some of the same calls, same situations against the Steelers that we had against the Patriots and we didn’t execute when we lost,’’ said safety Quinton Carter. “Against the Patriots, we had guys running open all down the field and you can’t make those mistakes against a team like that. It’s on us to just play smarter.’’
The Broncos also hurt themselves with three second-quarter fumbles against the Patriots. Ron Brace forced a fumble from running back Lance Ball, Mark Anderson forced a Tebow fumble, and punt returner Quan Crosby (since released) coughed up a punt with three seconds remaining in the first half.
The Patriots converted those miscues into 13 points and a 27-16 halftime lead.
“You cannot make mistakes against a great team like that, they’ll exploit you as they did right here on our field,’’ Carter said.
The Broncos played against the Steelers without right guard Chris Kuper, who went on injured reserve with a dislocated ankle. He was replaced by Russ Hochstein, who won two Super Bowl titles with the Patriots from 2002-08.
The Broncos likely will be without standout receiver Eric Decker, who suffered a significant knee injury against the Steelers. Decker led the team with 44 catches, 612 yards, and eight touchdowns during the regular season.
“I’m just so proud of Russ stepping up and playing well when Kup went down,’’ Tebow said. “[Decker’s] been huge all season. He’s been so clutch. He’s one of the best guys we’ve got.’’
Running back Willis McGahee was knocked from the game against the Patriots with an injury after having 70 yards on just seven carries.
“I didn’t finish the game so I definitely felt like there was more out there on the field,’’ McGahee said. “Just ready to see them next week. I know Coach [Bill] Belichick is going to have those guys prepared well for us, but we just have to go out there and play our football.’’
Tebow threw for a career-high 316 yards against the Steelers on just 10 completions (21 attempts) as the Broncos were able to exploit the Steelers’ zone defense with play-action passes.
Tebow completed 11 of 22 passes for 194 yards against the Patriots.
“They’re a very good team, one of the best players in football in Tom Brady playing for you, one of the best coaches in coach Belichick, so you know they’ll have a great game plan and you know they’ll be well-rested and they play hard, they play well, and we’re going to have to go get ready for them tomorrow,’’ Tebow said.
Tebow and the Broncos will face newly signed Patriots offensive assistant Josh McDaniels. He was the Broncos’ head coach from 2009-10 and picked Tebow in the first round of the 2010 draft.
Some of the Broncos hadn’t heard McDaniels was with the Patriots after being released from his contract as offensive coordinator of the Rams.
“McDaniels is over there? Already?’’ said Broncos end Elvis Dumervil. “That will be funny. We’ll see, we’ll get after him.’’
Most of the Broncos said McDaniels will have no affect on the game.
“I mean, it doesn’t matter, really,’’ said Bailey. “He’s not on the field. I’m worried about the guys on the field.’’
Said Goodman: “It’s the buildup, but again it’s about trying to win a postseason game.’’Greg A. Bedard can be reached at email@example.com.