PITTSBURGH - Mike Tomlin wouldn’t change a thing.
The Pittsburgh Steelers coach said yesterday he’d defend Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow the same way if given another chance, even after Tebow burned the defending AFC champions for an 80-yard touchdown pass on the first play of overtime to lift Denver to a stunning 29-23 victory.
“Obviously they made some nice plays on us and in hindsight you would analyze it, but your options are limited in terms of how you attack them,’’ Tomlin said.
The Steelers crowded the line of scrimmage and dared Tebow to beat the NFL’s top-ranked defense with his sometimes erratic left arm. Tebow obliged by throwing for 316 yards and a pair of long touchdowns, including the dart Demaryius Thomas turned into the quickest overtime score in NFL playoff history.
“They made a nice football play,’’ Tomlin said.
One that sent the Steelers into what could be an eventful offseason sooner than they hoped.
A year after falling just short in the Super Bowl, the Steelers went 12-5 despite a rash of injuries affecting every position. Even if Pittsburgh somehow had prevailed in Denver, there’s no telling how many healthy bodies would have been left to play on Saturday night in New England.
Left tackle Max Starks and nose tackle Casey Hampton both sustained knee injuries that could require surgery. Defensive end Brett Keisel’s groin acted up and linebacker LaMarr Woodley’s strained right hamstring remains balky more than two months after tweaking it.
Those injuries don’t include quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s sprained left ankle, safety Troy Polamalu’s tender right calf, or center Doug Legursky’s aching left shoulder.
The Steelers were hardly at 100 percent Sunday. Then again, they haven’t really been all season. From a season-opening 35-7 beatdown at rival Baltimore, Pittsburgh spent the entire year catching up.
“I just feel like we left a lot to be desired this year as a whole,’’ said safety Ryan Clark, who didn’t play in Denver because of a sickle-cell trait that makes it dangerous for him to play at high elevation. “To turn around on the sideline and see Keisel standing there in a jacket, to see Hampton standing there in a jacket, it’s a lot to overcome.’’
Still, the Steelers nearly did it behind Roethlisberger. Playing on basically one leg, Roethlisberger led a 14-point rally that included a spectacular 31-yard touchdown pass to Jerricho Cotchery with 3:48 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Pittsburgh had one last chance to win in regulation, moving within the extreme fringe of field goal range before going backward.
Tomlin said he thought kicker Shaun Suisham could make it from about 55 yards, meaning the Steelers needed to reach the Denver 38. They got as close as the Denver 45 before Roethlisberger had the ball knocked out of his hands by Denver’s Elvis Dumervil.
The first playoff game in which the league’s revised overtime rules came into effect was designed to provide the Steelers with at least one shot in the extra session - but only if the Broncos kicked a field goal after winning the coin toss and getting the ball. It never happened after Thomas slipped past cornerback Ike Taylor then outraced Taylor and backup safety Ryan Mundy to the end zone.
Just like that, Pittsburgh’s hopes for a ninth Super Bowl trip were gone.
Tomlin had no problems with the defensive play call, an inverted zone that called for Mundy and Polamalu to crowd the line of scrimmage to stop the run.
The odds certainly seemed to be in Pittsburgh’s favor. The Broncos ran the ball on 23 of their previous 24 first downs. Not this time, providing wild-card weekend with a wild finish for the ages.
Taylor was nearly inconsolable afterward, the backbone of the league’s best pass defense fighting back tears while taking sole responsibility for the loss.
Tomlin and Taylor’s teammates, however, would have none of it.
“Such is life,’’ Tomlin said. “We’ve got a great deal of respect for Ike and what he’s willing to do for us.’’
Taylor will get a chance at redemption next season after signing a four-year contract in the preseason. So will Polamalu and Woodley, who both agreed to extensions before the regular season kicked off.
They’re among the few certainties on a still formidable but aging defense that started seven players in their 30s on Sunday.