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Broncos top mistake-prone Steelers 31-20

PITTSBURGH (Nov. 5, 2006) -- The Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers never thought they would already be playing for next year halfway through a season that began with so many expectations.

Javon Walker scored three touchdowns on two receptions and a 72-yard run on a wide receiver reverse and the Denver Broncos took advantage of repeated Pittsburgh mistakes to win 31-20.

The loss likely ended any realistic chance the Steelers had to repeat their Super Bowl title. Nearly 11 months after halting Denver's season in the AFC Championship Game, the Steelers may have seen this season effectively ended by the Broncos (6-2) in Pittsburgh.

"I would have bet my house before the season started we wouldn't be 2-6," defensive lineman Casey Hampton said. "I'd be homeless right now."

The Steelers have lost six of seven to match their worst midseason record in coach Bill Cowher's 15 seasons and by any returning NFL champion in 20 seasons. No team has bounced back from a 2-6 record and a loss in its eighth game to make the playoffs, and only the Arizona Cardinals (1-7) have a worse record in the NFL.

"At 2-6, you have to audition for next year," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "We'll see now who wants it and who throws in the towel."

Pittsburgh must sweep its final eight games to get to 10-6, a record that might be needed to reach the AFC playoffs with five teams having only two or fewer losses.

"If you're 2-5, you can't afford to lose many more in the AFC," Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer said.

The Broncos never got anything going offensively until it was too late in that 34-17 loss to Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game in January, but this game was just the opposite. They led 14-0 less than four minutes in on Plummer's 16-yard touchdown throw to Rod Smith following Walker's 38-yard reception and Walker's 10-yard TD catch that came after Santonio Holmes fumbled a kickoff.

"We were down 14-0 before you could blink," Cowher said.

Not that Shanahan felt any extra satisfaction beating the team that kept Denver out of the Super Bowl.

"It's always nice to beat a good football team and a well-run organization, but I don't think you can compare it to that," Shanahan said. "They did it when the pressure was on and in our backyard."

Walker, the former Green Bay receiver who tore up a knee in his first game of last season, scored on his long run on Denver's second play of the second half and added a second 10-yard TD catch, again with Ike Taylor in coverage, to make it 28-17 early in the fourth quarter.

"Sometimes you dig pretty deep for some plays, and the coaches must have seen something," Walker said of his 72-yard run. "I saw the cornerback (Deshea Townsend) come up and I glanced to my right and I saw the cutback lane up the middle."

What surprised Steelers linebacker Larry Foote was, "I don't know if anybody touched him. When have you see a big play like that against our defense? That was uncalled for."

Later, Walker -- who had 206 yards receiving and rushing -- got open downfield on a 61-yard pass play against Taylor to the Steelers 18 to set up Jason Elam's 32-yard field goal that effectively closed out the Steelers.

The Broncos took advantage of the kind of mistakes the Steelers have made all season -- Roethlisberger interceptions, fumbles at key times and costly penalties -- to rebound from their 34-31 loss to the Colts last week and stay atop the AFC West.

Roethlisberger threw for a career-high 433 yards by going 38 of 54 a week after having four passes intercepted in a 20-13 loss at Oakland. But he had three more interceptions, two at the Denver 3-yard line by Champ Bailey -- the first coming with the Steelers possibly driving for the tying score midway through the second quarter.

Not only did the Steelers turn the ball over, they did so in the worst possible place inside the Broncos 5. Ward fumbled at the Broncos 1 in the final two minutes, after being hit by John Lynch, and wide receiver Cedrick Wilson lost a fumble at the 6 with the Steelers trying to come back from the early 14-0 deficit late in the first quarter.

The Steelers have more turnovers (10) in two games than the eight they had during their eight-game winning streak that ended last season and carried through the playoffs. They also have more (24) in half a season than they did all last season (23).

"We're doing the same thing over and over and over," Willie Parker said. "We're a great team that's 2-6, and it's because we're not concentrating on the little things."

Parker scored both Steelers touchdowns, on a 15-yard pass from Roethlisberger early in the second quarter and a 3-yard run late in the third that briefly cut Denver's advantage to 21-17.

Notes: Plummer was 16 of 27 for 227 yards, even though the Steelers led 499-336 in total yardage. ... The Broncos won despite losing two starters to injuries in the first half: linebacker Ian Gold (hamstring) and safety Nick Ferguson (concussion). Ferguson was hurt while being blocked by Ward, came back for a few plays, then left again and did not return. Ferguson's replacement, Sam Brandon, may have seriously injured a knee late in the game. ... The Broncos have allowed 54 points in two games after giving up 44 in their first six. ... Game security was tightened after two college film students tried sneaking into Heinz Field overnight, apparently to shoot a dance video.

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