Challenged to let it rip by Broncos team president John Elway last week, and by the Steelers defense on Sunday, Tim Tebow cut it loose in spectacular fashion Sunday afternoon at Sports Authority Field, throwing for a career-high 316 yards and two touchdown passes in Denver's stunning 29-23 overtime upset of Pittsburgh in the first round of the AFC playoffs.
In a season of remarkable comebacks, Tebow staged a rally of a different sort this time, helping the Broncos shake off the doubts created by their three-game regular-season-ending losing streak, and knocking off a Pittsburgh team that was heavily favored to advance to next weekend's divisional round.
Once again, Denver's winning script was both implausible, and dare we say, magical? And there was nothing tentative about Tebow's delivery on this day.
After blowing a 14-point halftime lead, and a 10-point fourth-quarter margin, the Broncos won on the first play of overtime when Tebow hit Denver second-year receiver Demaryius Thomas in stride about 20 yards downfield, then watched as Thomas raced past Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor all the way down the right sideline and into the end zone for a jaw-dropping 80-yard touchdown catch.
Thomas' touchdown marked the shortest overtime period in NFL history (just 11 seconds), and ended the first game to be played under the league's new playoff overtime rules, a modification rendered meaningless when the Broncos scored a touchdown on their first possession of the extra period.
"We just executed a little bit better. We just tried to step up,'' Tebow said, moments after circling the field in a victory lap that doubled as a hand-slapping encounter with delirious Broncos fans. "We knew it was win, or go home. And this team wanted to fight, and we wanted to play another game. One of the great things about our team is we're a team that constantly believes. Believes in each other, believes in ourselves, believes in the coaches and what they're trying to do. Even when there were ups and downs this season, this team didn't change.''
There will be more than a few more Tebow believers after this one, which was Denver's NFL-record fourth overtime victory of the season without a defeat, a total that nearly constitutes half of the 9-8 Broncos' wins this year. And again, Tebow was in the center of the story, with pregame reports indicating that Denver might be preparing to bench him in favor of ultra-rusty backup Brady Quinn if he started slowly against the Steelers. But there was no need, given that Tebow was ready to produce the finest passing game of his brief NFL career.
"I never really doubted,'' said Broncos head coach John Fox, when asked whether he was concerned about Tebow's confidence last week. "He's a really strong young man, and really it wasn't just about Tim. A lot has been made of Tim, and he's done an amazing job, but I don't think they had too much credit for our whole team. I'm not talking about they being the Steelers, they being the people that write stuff.''
But in reality, the Steelers seemed to be doubting Tebow's ability to win a game with his arm as well, playing a lot of man-to-man coverage in the first half, with little help from their safeties over the top. It seemed logical given Tebow's struggles in recent weeks, especially considering that Pittsburgh featured the NFL's top-ranked passing defense, and had given up a league-low two passes of 40 yards or more in the regular season.
The Steelers' plan seemed to work to perfection in the first quarter, with Tebow going 0 of 2 through the air and Pittsburgh limiting Denver to just eight yards of offense in the midst of building a 6-0 lead. But then Tebow Time made an eye-opening comeback in the second quarter, with the Broncos' second-year quarterback hitting four big-play passes against Pittsburgh in lightning fashion. He completed five of his nine passes in the quarter for a whopping 185 yards, a gaudy 37-yard average completion.
Tebow started with a 51-yard strike down the left side to Thomas, came right back with a perfect 30-yard touchdown pass to receiver Eddie Royal two plays later, and then added a 58-yarder to Thomas on the following Denver drive, and a 40-yard pass to tight end Daniel Fells that help set up another Broncos field goal drive later in the quarter. All told, Denver scored on its four meaningful possessions of the quarter, reeling off 20 unanswered points to take a surprising 20-6 halftime lead. The Steelers wound up giving up more passing yards in that quarter (185) than they allowed on average in games this season (171.9).
"The number of (pass attempts) wasn't surprising,'' Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. "The number of long completions was. I think the significant difference is the number of big plays they were able to connect on. It was throwing and catching by them. Execution.''
It was execution the likes of which we have rarely seen from Tebow in Denver's one-of-a-kind passing game. And it infused the Broncos with the hope and belief that an upset of the mighty Steelers could be in the offing on this day.
"We had struggled over the last couple of weeks, and I think a lot of that progress (we made) was because of our quarterback,'' Fox said. "A lot is said. A lot was written. A lot of critique on him. And I thought he stepped up in a huge way tonight. I think he was a big part of us winning the game.''
It's amazing how much this town and this team is now Tebow's. Once he starting completing passes early in the second quarter, the Broncos defense responded to his enthusiasm, and the Denver crowd came alive with Tebow Fever. It was as if the Broncos' dismal three-game losing streak never happened.
"It definitely gave us some momentum when we hit (Thomas) down the sideline, and then we hit Eddie (Royal) for the touchdown and that gave us some more momentum,'' Tebow said. "We were cooking pretty good from then on out.''
Tebow and Thomas abused Taylor almost unmercifully, connecting four times for a franchise postseason record 204 yards and two touchdowns, with those big-play strikes of 51 and 58 yards in the second quarter, and the game-winner from 80 yards. On the overtime touchdown, Thomas got inside of Taylor, caught the ball near the Denver 40, and the Broncos benefitted from both his deceptive speed and their having caught Pittsburgh's defense in a run-heavy front. Once Thomas stiff-armed Taylor, he was gone down the right sideline, on his way to the longest overtime scoring play in NFL playoff history.
Asked his thought as Thomas broke free, Tebow was Tebow, saying "First of all, 'Thank you, Lord,' and then I was running pretty fast, chasing him -- like I could catch up to (him). Then I just jumped into the stands -- first time I've done that; that was fun -- and then I just got on a knee to thank the Lord again and tried to celebrate with my teammates and the fans.''
With his 10 of 21 passing for 316 yards, no turnovers, and a 125.6 passer rating, Tebow's first career playoff performance was epic in many ways. He quieted the critics for at least another week, and now, who knows where the story of his unforgettable 2011 season might lead? Next week, in a plot twist that seemingly only Tebow could inspire, he and Thomas get to face off in New England against newly rehired Patriots offensive assistant Josh McDaniels, the former Broncos head coach who drafted both of them in 2010's first round.
You can't make this stuff up. The Tebow magic is back, and the playoff version is better than ever. With the top-seeded Patriots (13-3) awaiting in the divisional round, somehow I don't think Brady Quinn should anticipate getting any sniff of the first-team offense in practice this week.