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Steelers stir some bad memories for Broncos' faithful

Jerome Bettis was the Steelers' featured RB when they beat the Broncos 34-17 in the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 22, 2006. Allen Kee/Getty Images

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Throughout a career that will almost certainly land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Champ Bailey routinely said one of the most important things for a cornerback to have was a short memory.

But in all his career moments, including a decade with the Denver Broncos, there was one memory he simply couldn’t, and refused to, leave in the past.

And that was Jan. 22, 2006.

That date will be discussed plenty in the coming days as the Broncos prepare for Sunday’s AFC divisional round game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Sports Authority Field at Mile High. That’s because it was the last time the Broncos, with home-field advantage in the AFC bracket in hand, faced the Steelers in a postseason game (the Broncos did not have home-field advantage when they defeated the Steelers in the divisional round following the 2011 season).

That 2011 team, with Tim Tebow having started at quarterback for the last half of the season, was a flawed, 8-8 division winner. The Broncos were dismantled the following week in New England and Tebow was traded the following offseason when the Broncos signed Peyton Manning.

But January 2006? That was different, because the Broncos didn't just think they could win it all, they believed it in their football soul and could see it in their roster. It is why it is the game Bailey consistently cited as the one that got away from him, the organization and the city.

The Steelers, who had upset Manning and the Indianapolis Colts the week before, had handed the Broncos home-field the rest of the way with that win. The Broncos had finished 13-3 and had the roster to win a Super Bowl.

And as the towel-spinning Steelers fans filled the stands, having spent their hard-earned dollars to procure tickets from Broncos’ fans who sold them rather than sit in a sunny, 34-degree day, the Broncos opened the game poorly and never recovered. The Steelers launched themselves from the gate and led 24-3 at halftime as Ben Roethlisberger was 13-of-17 passing for 180 yards with two touchdowns in his first two quarters of work on the way to a 275-yard passing day.

Pittsburgh cruised to a 34-17 victory, went on to win both the AFC Championship and the Super Bowl in the weeks that followed.

The Broncos offensive coordinator that day was Gary Kubiak, his last game with the team until John Elway hired him this past offseason to run the show. Kubiak took the Houston Texans job shortly after the loss, the first domino to fall in what eventually resulted in a five-year playoff drought that got both Mike Shanahan and Josh McDaniels fired.

So already in Broncos Nation, the Steelers’ return has stirred memories of that loss to close out 2005. There are calls on social media for fans to keep their tickets with folks playing a little remember-when.

Or as Bailey often said: “The only way to get rid of a loss like that when you played in it is to win, to get all the way, otherwise you’re always going to be (mad) you didn't get it done."