DENVER - On the first play of overtime, Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow went back to pass, and his oft-ridiculed mechanics were terrible.
He wound up like a baseball pitcher. He started his slow, looping motion by pulling the ball back from his midsection. He brought his left arm way too far back before he threw.
All those criticisms seem a bit silly now. Tebow may never be a conventional NFL quarterback, but in a season that has been so improbable for the Broncos, partially because of Tebow’s heroics late in games, he was part of one of the greatest plays in playoff history. Tebow threw a perfect strike to Demaryius Thomas, who made a fantastic run for the end zone to beat the Steelers 29-23 in an AFC wild card playoff game Sunday at Sports Authority Field. The game ended in 11 seconds of overtime - the fastest ending to an overtime playoff game in NFL history.
Tebow, who was criticized before the NFL draft for his poor mechanics and has been dismissed by critics who don’t think he can be a pro quarterback even though Sunday was just his 15th career start, threw for 316 yards and two touchdowns against the top-ranked defense in the NFL. The Broncos will play Saturday at New England.
“I think one of the great things about our team is we’re a team that constantly believes,” Tebow said. “Believes in each other, believes in ourselves, believes in the coaches and what they’re trying to do.”
The winning play wasn’t immensely challenging for Tebow, although he did make a precise throw to Thomas. The play was successful because the call was perfect, as the Steelers were expecting a first-down run, and then Thomas made a magnificent run after catch.
When the Broncos won the coin toss for overtime and chose to receive, the offense huddled on the sideline and got the call. The play was for Tebow to fake a handoff left to Willis McGahee while the line simulated a run block, holding the linebackers and safeties while Thomas’ ran a drag route to the middle of the field.
The Broncos were banking on the Steelers going with their “zero blitz” package, which would bring the safeties up, leaving nobody in the deep middle of the field. The Steelers spent much of the game focusing on the run, considering Tebow threw for just 60 yards last week. When Pittsburgh safety Ryan Mundy (who was replacing starter Ryan Clark, who sat out because he has a blood disorder that is exacerbated by the altitude) crept up to the line before the snap, the Broncos knew the play was wide open.
“I was walking to the line and saw the safety come down and I knew, at that time, the play we had called, the only person I had to beat was the corner,” Thomas said. “I crossed his face and I knew the middle of the field was wide open.”
The corner covering Thomas was Ike Taylor, one of the more respected cover men in the NFL. But he let Thomas get inside without jamming him at the line, as if he was expecting inside help. Mundy said after the game he could have helped Taylor more underneath, but he was caught by the run fake. He didn’t turn around until Thomas had streaked past him.
“We wanted to try to get ‘D.T.’ in there behind the safeties blitzing, and he did a great job getting off the corner,” Tebow said.
Tebow credited Thomas for waiting for him to deliver the ball in the “second window,” when he could throw it between retreating linebackers Lawrence Timmons and James Farrior. Tebow hit Thomas in stride at Denver’s 38-yard line. And then Thomas delivered a great stiff-arm to Taylor’s chest to get separation.
“I knew if I could stiff him that I could take it all the way,” said Thomas, who had 204 yards on four catches.
The Broncos’ fans went wild as Thomas ran down the sideline, outrunning Taylor and Mundy for the game-winning score, finishing a thrilling game that saw the Broncos lead 20-6 in the second quarter behind 185 passing yards by Tebow in the quarter, only to have Pittsburgh tie it with 10 straight points in the fourth quarter. Denver’s coach and quarterback went a bit crazy too.
“I attempted to run down the sideline,” John Fox said. “And fortunately I didn’t get injured.”
“First of all, ‘Thank you, Lord,’” said Tebow, when asked what he thought as Thomas pulled away from Taylor. “Then I was running pretty fast, chasing him – like I could catch up to ‘D.T.’ Then I just jumped in the stands. First time I’ve done that … that was fun.”
The Broncos, who finished 8-8 in the regular season and lost their last three games, can celebrate their first NFL playoff win since Jan. 14, 2006, when they beat the Patriots.
“It feels good,” said cornerback Champ Bailey, the longest tenured Bronco. “It’s been a long time coming.”