DENVER — One of the most storied NFL playoff teams ran into a rejuvenated Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos.
Sorry, Pittsburgh Steelers.
The magic is back.
Tebow connected with Demaryius Thomas on an electrifying 80-yard touchdown pass on the first play of overtime and the Broncos defeated the stunned Steelers 29-23 in the AFC wild-card game on Sunday.
Wild doesn’t begin to describe it.
The play took 11 seconds and was the quickest ending to an overtime in NFL history.
Thomas hauled in a high play-action pass at the Denver 38, stiff-armed Ike Taylor and then outraced Ryan Mundy to the end zone. Tebow, who looked as startled as everyone else, chased down Thomas and knelt on one knee — a gesture known far and wide these days as Tebowing.
Then he pounded a fist in triumph and took a victory lap.
“When I saw him scoring, first of all, I just thought, ‘Thank you, Lord,”’
Tebow said. “Then, I was running pretty fast, chasing him — Like I can catch up to D.T! Then I just jumped into the stands, first time I’ve done that. That was fun. Then, got on a knee and thanked the Lord again and tried to celebrate with my teammates and the fans.”
Prodded by John Elway to let the ball fly, Tebow acted as if the last three weeks never happened, lifting the Broncos to their first playoff win in six years.
Behind Tebow’s 316 yards passing, the Broncos (9-8) are heading to New England for a second-round game against the top-seeded Patriots on Saturday night.
And, unlike Elway, who lost his first post-season start — to the Steelers at home in 1984 — Tebow is 1-0 in the playoffs.
“We’re just a fighting team. A lot of resilience,” Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said. “In any adverse situation, we’ll find a way to get out of it. Everybody says we backed into the playoffs, we’re in. We did something right along the way. We’re in it. We won a game. Now, we’ve got to go try to win another one.”
The Steelers (12-5) lost despite Ben Roethlisberger rallying injury-depleted Pittsburgh from a two-touchdown halftime deficit with 10 points in the final 10 minutes.
Pittsburgh called tails for the overtime coin toss, and it came up heads.
Tebow, who engineered five fourth-quarter comebacks and three OT wins in the regular season, wasted no time in finding Thomas to end the game. Mundy was playing in place of Ryan Clark, the Steelers’ leading tackler who sat this one out because of a blood condition that’s exacerbated at altitude.
Clark was one of several Steelers sidelined or injured. Pro Bowl centre Maurkice Pouncey was out, replaced by Doug Legursky, who had a bad snap right before halftime that moved Pittsburgh out of field goal range.
Thomas raced down the Broncos sideline, sending the crowd, including Elway, the Broncos executive vice-president, into a frenzy at Sports Authority Field, which was rocking like the old Mile High Stadium back in the 1990s.
And Elway, the architect of so many those magical moments at the old place, jumped for joy on the field like he used to when he was the one throwing the winning pass.
The Patriots walloped the Broncos 41-23 last month, sending Tebow into a funk that included seven turnovers and a 40 per cent completion clip — and prompting Elway to implore him to “pull the trigger” in the playoffs.
Did he ever.
Tebow completed 10-of-21 passes but Thomas hauled in four of them for 204 yards after his top target, Eric Decker, was lost to a left knee injury on the first play of the second quarter when he was hit by linebacker James Harrison.
Tebow also ran 10 times for 50 yards.
“I think we executed a little bit better. We tried to step up,” Tebow said. “We knew it was win or go home. This team wanted to fight. We wanted to play another game.”
These two teams had played the first ever regular season overtime game on Sept. 22, 1974, in Denver. Now, they played the first non-sudden death playoff game in history. The new rules called for both teams to get the ball in the extra period providing there wasn’t a touchdown by either the offence or defence.
Tebow took care of that in a hurry.
Making his first appearance in the playoffs after going 7-4 as Denver’s starter, Tebow outduelled Roethlisberger, a two-time Super Bowl winner who fell to 10-4 in the playoffs.
The Broncos snapped a three-game losing streak that had many wondering if they were even worthy of their first playoff spot in six seasons, and it kept the Steelers from their 34th playoff win, which would have broken a tie with the Cowboys for the most ever.
Tebow led Denver to 20 second-quarter points — they had scored just 13 in the quarter in his 11 starts — but a 20-6 halftime lead didn’t last long.
Receiver Mike Wallace had a one-yard TD run, Shaun Suisham kicked a short field goal and Jerricho Cotchery grabbed a 31-yard TD pass with 3:48 left in regulation to tie it.
The Steelers were nearing field goal range in the final minute of regulation but the Broncos sacked Roethlisberger three times on that final drive, forcing a fumble the quarterback recovered.
“We were moving it and we had a shot,” Roethlisberger said. “Someone got, it felt like a finger, on the ball and knocked it out. After that, you’re trying to throw a 70-yard Hail Mary and that’s hard.”