DENVER – “Pull the trigger,” John Elway told his Denver Broncos star, Tim Tebow, trying to shake the quarterback from a three-game funk.
Tebow went one better – he pulled off an upset.
A rejuvenated Tebow connected with Demaryius Thomas on an electrifying 80-yard touchdown pass on the first play of overtime and the Broncos defeated the stunned Pittsburgh 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 backup safety Ryan Mundy to the end zone.
“I was just saying, ‘Man trust your speed. Trust your speed. Don’t cut back. Don’t cut back.’ And he kept it straight. He outran the guy,” said Willis McGahee, whose fourth-quarter fumble helped Pittsburgh tie it.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, is he still running?’ Please just go. Please. Please.”
Tebow, who had done next to nothing in the second half after a 20-point explosion in the second quarter, looked as startled as everyone else. He chased down Thomas and knelt on one knee – Tebowing as it’s known – in the end zone while the crowd was going crazy. 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.”
Behind Tebow’s season-high 316 yards passing, the Broncos (9-8) are heading to New England for a second-round game against the top-seeded Patriots (13-3) on Saturday.
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 Elway to implore him to “pull the trigger” in the playoffs.
And unlike Elway, who lost his first postseason 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,” 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 finding Thomas over the middle with just his second pass on first down all night – and his first completion.
Thomas also had receptions of 51 and 58 yards to set up second-quarter touchdowns after Tebow lost his top target, Eric Decker, to an injured left knee, in the first half.
“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.”
Thus, Elway’s admonition.
“I feel like he came out and played confident,” Eddie Royal said. “And I think that’s what John was trying to tell him: Play the way you know how to play. And Tim did that. He was smart with the ball and really led the offense.”
Tebow’s passer rating of 125.6 was the highest in Broncos postseason history.
“He showed he’s a quarterback in the NFL, 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.”
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.
“We lost, and it’s not because I didn’t play; we had very capable guys that played well,” said Clark, who was one of several Steelers sidelined or injured. Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey was out, replaced by Doug Legursky, who had a bad snap right before halftime that moved Pittsburgh out of field goal range.
On the first snap of overtime, Thomas pulled in Tebow’s high pass and 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.
McGahee sold the play-action well, drawing safety Troy Polamalu and others up to the line to defend the run and leaving Thomas with room on the crossing pattern to grab the pass and turn on the jets for the 80-yard score, Tebow’s longest pass play as a pro.
“It was a little surprising,” Steelers linebacker James Farrior said. “He’s taken a lot of criticism over the past few weeks about his throwing motion, his passing game. Like I said earlier, he’s a competitor. You keep trying to down a guy, and a guy like him who’s a tough competitor, he’s going to get you one time.”
Tebow completed 10 of 21 passes and Thomas hauled in four of them for 204 yards. Tebow had two TD passes and ran 10 times for 50 yards and another score.