DENVER -- Steel City, meet Steal City.
In a shocking upset Sunday, the Denver Broncos heisted the Super Bowl dreams of the heavily-favored Pittsburgh Steelers, capping wildcard weekend with the wildest of wins -- a 29-23 victory in overtime.
On the first play from scrimmage in the extra period, Tim Tebow hit Demaryius Thomas over the middle, and Thomas outraced the defense for an 80-yard touchdown. The delirium in Sports Authority Stadium seemed to cause it to sway, the unbelievable outcome scripted in orange.
Minutes after the game, Tebow recounted his memories of the final play as if they were snapshots in his head.
"When I saw him scoring?" he said. "First of all, 'Thank you, Lord!' And then I was running pretty fast chasing him -- like I could catch up to DT -- and then I just jumped in the stands. First time I've done that. That was fun. Then just got on a knee and thanked the Lord again and tried to celebrate with my teammates."
Thomas' description, like his dash to the end zone, was more straight-forward: "I was open, and I just had to take it to the house."Tebow threw for two touchdowns and ran for another, pumping new hope into a franchise that backed into the postseason by losing its last three games.
Asked what he would have said a year ago if he were told he'd take over a 4-12 team and not only make the postseason, but win a playoff game, Broncos coach John Fox said: "I would have taken it and run -- and I probably would have pulled both hamstrings."
Fox said he was particularly proud of Tebow, who was able to turn down the outside noise and simply focus on football.
"A lot was said, a lot was written, there was a lot of critique on him," the coach said. "I thought he stepped up in a huge way tonight, and I think he was a big part of us winning the game."
Now, the Broncos will head to New England, where they play the Patriots in a divisional game Saturday night. The Steelers, favored by 8 1/2 points, have all offseason to dissect what went wrong.
"I'm proud of our guys and the way they fought, but obviously we're not in it for moral victories," said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, whose team couldn't sustain the tone it set in the first quarter when it held the Broncos to eight yards of offense. "It wasn't enough."
After a stifling defensive performance in the opening quarter -- one that made the Broncos look as cold as the chilly afternoon -- the Steelers were outscored, 20-0, in the second quarter.
Pittsburgh trailed at halftime, 20-6, but chipped away at the Denver lead in the second half, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger playing on a severely sprained ankle, and without Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, safety Ryan Clark and running back Rashard Mendenhall.
Of gritting through his injury to keep playing, Roethlisberger said: "Adrenaline does some crazy things. You want to be there for your guys. You want to show them it's about heart, and that's what we did. We had a lot of guys do that today. It's unfortunate we came out on the wrong end."
Denver had its share of injuries, too, including playing without Pro Bowl safety Brian Dawkins and for most of the game without leading receiver Eric Decker, who suffered a knee injury in the second quarter.
With 3:48 remaining in regulation, the Steelers forged a 23-23 tie when Roethlisberger threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to Jerricho Cotchery.
Denver's offense had stalled by that point, but the Broncos defense clamped down, kept the Steelers from scoring again, and forced overtime.
There was little indication at the start of the game that the Broncos were going to stick around and make things competitive. After the first quarter, Denver had eight yards, no first downs, a pair of three-and-outs, and trailed, 6-0. The only good news for the Broncos was their defense hadn't given up a touchdown.
But for the swirling yellow Terrible Towels of Steelers fans, the stadium was an orange-and-blue mausoleum.
The place got even quieter on the first play of the second quarter when Tebow threw a high pass to Decker, the receiver made a leaping grab for 21 yards, and was hit low by Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison. Decker's left foot was planted when he was hit, causing his knee to bend in an unnatural way. (Adding insult to injury, the play was ruled an incomplete pass after a Pittsburgh challenge.) Decker had to be helped off the field and ultimately to the locker room. Done for the day.
Who could have predicted the Broncos would hit rock bottom ... and bounce?
But that's what they did. On the next play, a third and 12 from the Denver 18, Tebow threw a beautiful deep pass down the sideline to Thomas for a 51-yard gain. Two plays later, receiver Eddie Royal beat William Gay in the corner of the end zone for a 30-yard touchdown and a 7-6 lead.
The Broncos weren't done. Not even close. They forced Pittsburgh's first three-and-out, then Tebow struck again with another deep ball to Thomas for 58 yards. That set up an eight-yard touchdown run up the middle by the quarterback for a 14-6 lead.
On Pittsburgh's next possession, Roethlisberger was sacked hard by defensive end Robert Ayers, a hit that aggravated the injured ankle of the Steelers quarterback. His mobility was already limited, but now Roethlisberger looked tentative and damaged. He threw a pass on the next play right into the arms of Broncos rookie safety Quinton Carter.
That gave Denver the ball at Pittsburgh's 18, and though the Broncos could only get a field goal out of that prime opportunity, they unquestionably had all the momentum. Three more points came on Denver's next possession -- a drive that included a 40-yard pass down the middle to tight end Daniel Fells -- and the up-from-the-ashes Broncos established a 20-6 halftime lead.
Tebow's statistical line in the first half was something to behold: five of 11 for 185 yards, meaning he averaged 37 yards per completion.
The quarterback also joined an exclusive club. He became just the second Broncos quarterback, along with Hall of Famer John Elway, to both pass and run for touchdowns in a postseason game. What's more, Tebow and Thomas joined Elway and Michael Young as the only quarterback-receiver tandems to connect on a pair of 50-yard completions in the same playoff game.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun