Broncos, Tim Tebow stun Steelers in OT, win 29-23 in NFL playoffs |

Broncos, Tim Tebow stun Steelers in OT, win 29-23 in NFL playoffs

Mike Klis, The Denver Post

Don’t feel bad, Tebow bashers.

The Tim Tebow​ bandwagon does not discriminate.

Degrade him. Blister him with insults. Shout defiantly that the kid can’t play NFL quarterback. And then slump those shoulders, Merrill Hoge​, Bill Maher, Jermichael Finley​, Joe Flacco​, Steve Smith, and climb on back.

Tebow did it again.

Just as it appeared all was lost, as it seemed the Broncos would blow a 14-point halftime lead, Tebow delivered.

The lefty winged a game-winning, 80-yard touchdown pass to the remarkably gifted Demaryius Thomas​ on the first play of overtime to give the Broncos a stunning, 29-23 AFC playoff win against the heavily favored Pittsburgh Steelers​.

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TebowMania is once again fully inflated.

Heads up, Josh McDaniels​, the new assistant coach of the New England Patriots​. Here comes the Broncos and the two guys you once drafted in the first round.

Thomas and Tebow, picked No. 22 and 25 overall in the first round of the 2010 draft, will play the New England Patriots on Saturday night in the second round of the AFC playoffs.

Winner advances to the AFC championship.

The sellout crowd of 75,658 fans at Sports Authority Field at Mile High leaped for joy as Tebow threw a wondrously accurate pass on a deep cross to Thomas, who cut to the right sideline, stiffed armed away from a couple would-be tacklers, and raced through the end zone and into the tunnel leading to the locker room.

Demaryius Thomas pulled a Bo Jackson​.

Tebow threw for 316 yards and two touchdowns, and ran for another score as he outdueled — if not by much — Ben Roethlisberger​, the courageous and remarkably poised Steelers quarterback.

Roethlisberger was terrific in leading Pittsburgh back from a 20-6 halftime deficit to force a 23-23 tie.

But overtime is nothing new to the Broncos. They are now 4-0 in overtime games this year. Thomas was Mr. Big Catch, as he had 204 receiving yards on just four receptions.

Funny what confidence does for a player. Following back-to-back rough performances against the lowly Buffalo Bills​ and Kansas City Chiefs​ to close out the regular season, Tebow spent the week covering his ears from a deluge of insults.

Local sports talk show hosts took turns outright dismissing Tebow’s chances of ever becoming a legitimate NFL quarterback.

National media outlets spent the week debating what the Broncos should do in 2012 if Tebow stinks it up against the Steelers. The discussion began as if a poor Tebow performance was a foregone conclusion.

Tebow was down in the dumps. Sitting in the office of quarterbacks’ coach Adam Gase, Tebow dispassionately watched on TV as his former Florida Gators​

play in a bowl game.

Ordinarily a rabid Gators’ booster, Tebow barely flinched as his alma mater defeated Ohio State.

Some media outlets speculated Tebow might not make it to the second half against the Steelers, much less start the 2012 season.

Where have you gone, Brady Quinn​?

Actually, as the Broncos backup quarterback, Quinn was witness to not only the best postseason debut performance in franchise history, he saw an unusually intense Tebow during the week of practice.

Tebow awoke from his doldrums on Wednesday, when the Broncos began their formal preparations for the Steelers.

The Broncos had not reached the postseason since 2005. Why feel shame when 20 teams were finished for the season and the Broncos were one of only 12 teams still playing?

It’s not often “intense” and “”unusual” are both used to describe Tebow. Even his critics agree the young man oozes competitiveness, determination and will from every pore.

But the past week, with Tebow aware of the jeering noise surrounding him, he ratcheted up the intensity to unprecedented levels.

During practice, a horn or whistle will blow marking the end of one period and the start of another. Tebow, the gung-ho Joe College guy that he is, sprinted from station to station.

Everybody else walks or trots from one stations to another. Tebow sprinted. Not on the first week of training camp. Sprinted from here to there, and sprinted some more following four preseason games, 16 regular-season games and 23 weeks of practice.

Some of that noise came from team front-office boss and newfound motivational speaker John Elway​. During the week, Elway was quoted as saying what he most wanted from Tebow was for the second-year quarterback to “pull the trigger.” Tebow not only pulled the trigger from his first pass attempt of the day, he started launching deep.

Tebow made two brilliant passes early in the game — to bad luck. His scramble and deep throw to Dante Rosario​ fell incomplete when the tight end couldn’t quite make the play.

With the Steelers controlling almost the entire first quarter, Tebow didn’t get to make his next throw until the second quarter. His medium-ranged pass to Eric Decker​ on a crossing pattern was spoiled by replay — and a vicious tackle at the knees by James Harrison, otherwise widely known as the NFL’s dirtiest player.

Decker suffered an sprain of his medial cruciate ligament (MCL) and will undergo an MRI on Monday in Denver. The injury wasn’t as serious as the Broncos first thought, the team said after the game.

But after a lengthy delay, Tebow unleashed a beautiful 51-yard pass to Thomas. One play later, Tebow threw a perfect 30-yard touchdown pass to Eddie Royal​.

The run-and-chuck offense was getting warmed up against the famed Steelers’ defense and its renowned coordinator Dick LeBeau​.

On his next possession, Tebow connected with Thomas again, this time for a 58-yard pass play to the Steelers’ 12. One play later, Broncos’ offensive coordinator Mike McCoy got deception through formation. He spread out four receivers, three to the right side. Tebow ran a quarterback draw up the gut for an 8-yard touchdown.

Sports Authority Field exploded in delirious joy. The Broncos, an 8 ½-point underdog to the perennial strong Steelers, were leading 14-6.

When on the next defensive series Broncos rookie safety Quinton Carter intercepted Ben Roethlisberger deep in Steelers territory, the home team had a chance to put the game away.

The drive stalled at the Pittsburgh 2, though, and the Broncos settled for a short Matt Prater​ field goal.

The proud Steelers may have started the second half down, 20-6. Their injuries may have been piling up by the series. But they were not finished.

Injured or not, Roethlisberger knows how to perform under pressure in playoff games.

On third-and-10 with his first second-half possession, Roethlisberger hit Emmanuel Sanders for 18 yards. Running back Isaac Redman​, subbing for the injured Rashard Mendenhall​, busted loose for a 32 yard run to the Broncos’ 1.

The Steelers​ had closed to 20-13.

Tebow answered, completing a huge, third-and-5 pass to Lance Ball​ for a first down. But as the Broncos moved to the Steeler 10, Tebow scrambled, threw a nice safety-valve pass to Eddie Royal, who moved to first-and-goal.

If only Matt Willis had not started blocking downfield while Tebow scrambled. The offensive pass interference call again caused the Broncos to settle for another Prater field goal.

It was 23-13 Broncos, but as Tebow himself had demonstrated plenty of times earlier in the season, 13 minutes was plenty of time remaining.

Denver’s D could not force Pittsburgh to punt once in the second half. Roethlisberger drove the Steelers to a field goal with about 10 minutes remaining.

It was 23-16 Broncos.

Next came the fumble of the game. Tebow was moving the Broncos rushing for one first down, then completing a pass to Thomas for another.

With first down near midfield, Broncos running back Willis McGahee​ was running for a nice gain, when he was stripped of the ball a fraction before his knees hit the ground.

Fumble! Big Ben was back in business. He got a break when Champ Bailey​, the Broncos’ 11-time Pro Bowl cornerback, dropped an interception in the end zone. On the next play, Roethlisberger scrambled right on his sprained ankle, and drilled a game-tying, 31-yard touchdown pass to Jericho Cotchery.

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