John Lynch still feels the sting of losing the 2005 AFC Championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Even though the Denver Broncos exacted a measure of revenge last year, beating the Steelers 31-20, Sunday is Pittsburgh's first visit to Invesco Field since whipping the Broncos 34-17 on their way to the Super Bowl.
"It stings, man," Lynch said, "knowing that we were one game away. Any time you get that opportunity, it really stings."
The Broncos were 13-3 that season, received a first-round bye, and were unbeaten at home. But they still ran into the buzzsaw that was the Steelers. Pittsburgh finished the regular season with four straight wins, then won their first two playoff games, both on the road, before dismantling Denver.
The Steelers' players don't look back on that day as anything more than a win on their way to a championship. They're focused on doing it again this year.
"I like to think about the future and the present," Steelers running back Willie Parker said. "That game is behind us and it was what it was. Now we've got to play them again this year. That's all that matters right now."
It's not quite the same for the Broncos.
The bitter defeat still lingers with those Broncos who are still in Denver since that loss. And despite last year's win at Heinz Field, they're still frustrated they let a Super Bowl shot slip through their fingers.
"At some point, I had to stop putting myself through the pain of watching it because it was a constant reminder of how close we were but just didn't succeed," safety Nick Ferguson said. "When you're that close, every time I watch a Super Bowl, I think how great that would feel to be there and we were one game away."
Many of Denver's top offensive players from that fateful game are no longer in a Broncos' uniform. Jay Cutler has replaced Jake Plummer. Travis Henry and Selvin Young have taken over for Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell.
Even some of the Broncos newcomers have a bone to pick with the Steelers.
Wide receiver Brandon Stokley was with the Indianapolis Colts the year Pittsburgh took home the championship. And the Colts lost an even bigger heartbreaker to the eventual Super Bowl winners.
"It's still there, I'm not going to lie," Stokley said. "I still think about it. I'm still disappointed we didn't get it done. They played better that day, but it still lingers there."
The Steelers, by most measures, had a down season last year. That's not the case this season, as the AFC North leaders sit at a comfortable 4-1. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is fifth in the NFL with a 99.2 quarterback rating. Parker is the AFC's fourth leading rusher. And the Steelers also boast the league's top ranked defense.
Pittsburgh is generally known for two things: physicality and running the football, Lynch said. In fact, the Steelers enter Sunday night's game with the league's No. 2 rush offense that faces Denver's porous run defense that ranks last in the NFL.
So the trick may be to get on Pittsburgh early. They did that last year and kept the ball out of Parker's hands. The Steelers were forced to throw, and despite Roethlisberger's success this year, Denver still may have an edge because of their No. 1 ranked pass defense.
"Last year we won that match at their place. I'm sure that's in their head," Lynch said. "Regardless of how the game plays out, we know what we'll be facing."