As soon as the ball hit the hands of Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas slanting from left to right, the whole season seemed to be defined in those horrifying few frames of footage.
Poor defensive call:
Granted, Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau did not instruct his defense to miss tackles on that particular defensive set (essentially a zero blitz aimed to stop an anticipated run). The biggest flaw in it is exactly what happened, though. A quick pass to a receiver with open space, and the lack of a last-man defender without the advantage of an angle in pursuit.
A defense that barely forced turnovers all season was looking to bust out of that slump in a huge way all game. The effort only made things worse. Ike Taylor in particular allowed multiple deep completions on poorly thrown balls, where, ironically, a failure to recognize the play immediately would have given him a better chance to intercept the pass.
The team had been beaten up all season long, and the loss of two key players (Casey Hampton and Max Starks) were two of the last straws to break the camel's back. If anything, forcing the game to overtime showed incredible resiliency from the players who remained standing. It's difficult to beat any team in the NFL without the ability to rotate defensive linemen, let alone one of the best rushing teams in the NFL, on the road, in the playoffs.
Each of these factors finally joined together, and as Thomas sped away to the upset victory, the Steelers were left holding onto the feeling the 2011 season wasn't as good as the 12-4 record indicated. In 2007, the Steelers finished at the top of a weak AFC North with a 10-6 record. They hosted a playoff game, but were done in by the ground-n-pound Jaguars (the only team in history to beat the Steelers twice in Pittsburgh in the same year). A first round loss in 2007 felt less fitting than in 2011. Something just wasn't there with the defending AFC champions.
It kicked off an offseason transition unlike any in franchise history. The release of veterans, the stockpiling of offensive linemen, the new offensive coordinator seemingly handpicked to protect the franchise quarterback from himself and his affinity for eight-second plays that were resulting in more injuries with each passing game.
Interestingly, the Denver Broncos' decision to deal Tim Tebow after its acquisition of Peyton Manning signified they, and not the Steelers, are the team that changed the most from 2011 to 2012. The marketing windfall lavished on NBC, the station getting to air Manning's Return Vs. The Massive SteelerNation Audience was clearly the reason this game was chosen for Sunday Night Football, but let's not overlook the stark differences between these teams from the last time they met.
Neither fan base will have a real clear idea on how all their new changes will pan out.