Tebow rules in OT, too: Broncos 29, Steelers 23
DENVER (AP) — Tim Tebow finally flexed his left arm and found one more fantastic finish up his sleeve.
After Ben Roethlisberger rallied the Pittsburgh Steelers from a two-touchdown deficit, the Denver Broncos won the overtime coin toss, and on first down, Tebow tucked the ball in Willis McGahee's belly like he'd done all afternoon.
The linebackers and safety Troy Polamalu all bit on the play-action fake, and Tebow hit wide receiver Demaryius Thomas for an electrifying 80-yard touchdown that stunned the Steelers 29-23 in the AFC wild-card game Sunday.
Thomas reached high to haul in Tebow's pass, stiff-armed cornerback Ike Thomas and outraced backup safety Ryan Mundy to the end zone for Denver's first playoff win in six years.
In 11 seconds — the shortest overtime in NFL history — Tebow showed he could be a conventional QB. It was also the longest overtime touchdown in playoff history.
"Case closed," McGahee said. "They say he couldn't throw. They said we wouldn't be able to run the ball on them. We did that. I wonder what they're going to say next week."
The Broncos (9-8) will face the top-seeded New England Patriots (13-3) on Saturday night.
Tom Brady and the Patriots walloped the Broncos 41-23 last month, sending Tebow into a funk that included seven turnovers and a 40 percent completion clip — and prompting Broncos boss John Elway to implore him to "pull the trigger" in the playoffs.
Did he ever.
Tebow threw for a season-high 316 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 50 yards and another score while slicing up the league's top defense — which was missing its top tackler, Ryan Clark, held out because of a blood condition that's exacerbated at altitude.
As Thomas sped down Denver's sideline, several teammates and coaches were tagging along and would mob him in the end zone. Elway thrust his hands into the air like he used to when he was the one engineering all these Broncos comebacks.
Tebow, too, chased down Thomas and knelt on one knee — Tebowing as it's known — in the end zone. Then he pounded a fist in triumph and took a victory lap after his fourth overtime win this season.
"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."
Unlike Elway, who lost his first postseason start — to the Steelers at home in 1984 — Tebow is 1-0 in the playoffs.
The Steelers (12-5) lost despite a gimpy Roethlisberger rallying injury-depleted Pittsburgh from a two-touchdown halftime deficit with 10 points in the final 10 minutes.
He also drove the Steelers into Broncos territory in the final minute, but three sacks and a fumble kept them from getting in field goal range, and Roethlisberger never got to touch the ball in overtime.
"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."
Thomas also had receptions of 51 and 58 yards to set up second-quarter touchdowns after Tebow lost his top target, Eric Decker, to a seriously injured left knee, in the first half, as the Broncos built a 20-6 halftime lead on the heavily favored but banged-up Steelers.
"They were the No. 1 defense and we are the No. 1 offense running the ball," Thomas said. "So, I feel like they wanted to make a statement and stop the run. I don't know if they forgot about the passing game. The last couple of games that we had, we were not passing the ball that great."
Tebow's passer rating of 125.6 was the highest in Broncos postseason history. He completed 10 of 21 passes and Thomas hauled in four of them for 204 yards — after no receiver had a 100-yard game on the Steelers all season.
"It's amazing because I haven't played explosive like I did in college in a long time," Thomas said.
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 offense or defense.
Tebow took care of that in a hurry.
Making his first appearance in the playoffs after going 7-4 as Denver's starter, Tebow outplayed Roethlisberger, a two-time Super Bowl winner playing on a bad ankle, who fell to 10-4 in the playoffs.
Roethlisberger was 22 for 40 for 289 yards with one TD, one interception and five sacks. Tebow wasn't picked off or sacked by the league's top defense.
The Broncos gained just 8 yards in the first quarter as Tebow looked like he did in ugly losses to the Patriots, Bills and Chiefs to close the season.
Then, he hit Thomas with his first big gain, setting up a 30-yard TD toss to Eddie Royal that put the Broncos ahead 7-6 and energized Denver, which took a 20-6 lead into the locker room.
The Broncos snapped a three-game losing streak that had many wondering if Tebow's time was up and if Denver was even worthy of its first trip to the playoffs in six seasons.
"One of the great things about our team is we're a team that constantly believes," Tebow said.
Notes: This was the Broncos' second playoff win since Elway retired following his second straight Super Bowl triumph in 1999, and their first since Jan. 14, 2006, when they handed Tom Brady his first playoff loss. The Broncos lost to the Steelers the following week. ... This was the first OT playoff game since the Saints beat the Vikings 31-28 in the NFC championship on Jan. 24, 2010. ... Broncos coach John Fox was the coach in Carolina when Steve Smith set the previous record for the longest overtime TD, a 69-yarder from Jake Delhomme to beat St. Louis 29-23 on the first play of the second overtime on Jan. 10, 2004.
Follow AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton