PITTSBURGH (AP) – The Pittsburgh Steelers ended the Broncos’ season by winning in Denver last January. Nearly 10 months later, the Broncos may have done likewise in Pittsburgh to the Steelers’ going-nowhere season.

Javon Walker scored three touchdowns on two receptions and a 72-yard run on a wide receiver reverse and the Broncos took advantage of repeated Pittsburgh mistakes to win 31-20 Sunday, likely ending any realistic chance the Steelers can repeat their Super Bowl title.

The Steelers’ sixth loss in seven games left them with a 2-6 record, matching their worst in coach Bill Cowher’s 15 seasons and by any returning NFL champion in the last 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) currently have a worse record in the NFL.

Pittsburgh would have to sweep its final eight games just to get to 10-6, a record that might be needed to reach the AFC playoffs during a season in which five teams have two or fewer losses midway through the season.

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. This time, the Broncos (6-2) led 14-0 less than four minutes in on Jake Plummer’s 16-yard touchdown throw to Rod Smith following Walker’s 38-yard reception, Santonio Holmes’ fumbled kickoff and Walker’s 10-yard TD catch.

Walker, the former Green Bay receiver who played only one game last season before badly injuring a knee, scored on his long run slightly more than a minute into the second half and added a second 10-yard TD catch early in the fourth quarter to make it 28-17. Then, after Jeff Reed kicked a 29-yard field goal, Walker – who had 206 yards receiving and rushing – got downfield on a 61-yard pass play 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 – Ben Roethlisberger interceptions, fumbles at key times and costly penalties – to rebound from its 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 he had four passes intercepted in a 20-13 loss at Oakland that was one of the Steelers’ least expected defeats since Cowher took over in 1992. But Roethlisberger threw for only one score and 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-yard line. Hines 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.

Willie 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.

Plummer’s numbers – 16-of-27 for 227 yards – weren’t nearly as good as Roethlisberger’s, but he avoided the costly mistakes that Roethlisberger made and the very kind Plummer himself made in the AFC championship game with two interceptions and a fumble.

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.

AP-ES-11-05-06 1952EST

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