DENVER – He planted his right foot on his own 15-yard line and went into the looping, deliberate wind-up that, like so much of what Tim Tebow does, seems to defy the conventions of quarterbacking at the highest level.
We waited. And waited. And then, in one furious and glorious thrust, Tebow's left hand released the pass that would wind up rebranding him as a passer and rocking the football world.
This, salty cynics, was no miracle.
This, Tebowphiles, was not tangible proof of divine intervention.
This, football fans, was a quarterback, a dude simultaneously calm, commanding and cocksure – the kind of classic gunslinger many of us doubted Tebow could ever be.
Suddenly, emphatically and irrevocably, mania had morphed into manhood. As Demaryius Thomas snatched Tebow's sublime spiral out of the Mile High sky and ripped into the open field, on his way to the unforgettable 80-yard touchdown that would give the Denver Broncos a 29-23 overtime victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in an AFC wild-card playoff game at Sports Authority Field, the debate over football's most polarizing player had ended.
It's official: Tebow wins; those of us who doubted him must reassess in a hurry, as rapidly as Thomas outran cornerback Ike Taylor and safety Ryan Mundy to render the NFL's newly revamped postseason overtime rule moot.
[ Related: Carpenter: Tebow finds way to win again ]
As 75,970 fans lapsed into a euphoric frenzy, a man in a dark overcoat on the Broncos' sidelines also celebrated with unfettered abandon. That's right: Even John Elway had no choice but to embrace Tebow, literally and figuratively, for now and possibly forever.
It wasn't just the pass to Thomas that earned the Hall of Famer's adulation; it was the way Tebow (10 for 21, 316 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions) had taken Elway's advice and taken shots downfield, right into the heart of All-Pro safety Troy Polamulu's domain.
Staring down the defending AFC champions and their top-ranked defense – and, very possibly, an uncertain football future – Tebow threw caution to the chilly mountain breeze and made his legendary predecessor proud. He also carried the Broncos into a divisional-round showdown with the top-seeded New England Patriots next Saturday night in Foxborough, Mass., where for the second time in a month he'll go up against the gold standard of his profession.
For what it's worth, Tom Brady was just as captivated by Tebow's systematic slaying of the Steelers as the millions who tuned in around the globe to witness the spectacle. As Brady wrote via email Sunday night, "Glad you enjoyed it! I did too. …"
If that doesn't make the second-year quarterback smile, perhaps this will: Watching from the basement of his offseason residence in Miami, Terrell Suggs – the Baltimore Ravens' All-Pro pass rusher and the league's most overt Tebow-basher, a guy who'd told me last week that "to say this is a phenomenon, I think of it as an insult to the rest of the other quarterbacks" – was in the midst of an attitude adjustment.
"I'm shocked," Suggs texted Sunday night. "Jaw is on the floor!!!!!!! He shocked us all."
The shock wasn't merely because Tebow had led the AFC West champion Broncos, who were 8 ½-point underdogs, to a victory over the Steelers. And it wasn't simply that he'd shaken off a three-game losing streak to end the regular season, one which included an atrocious effort in a 7-3 defeat to the last-place Kansas City Chiefs in the same stadium seven days earlier.
What was truly stunning was that Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and brainy defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau had essentially dared Tebow to air it out by loading up to stop the run – a smart strategy, on paper – and were made to pay for their insolence.
"Football is an aggressive game, a combative game," Broncos coach John Fox said more than an hour after the game as he mingled with family members outside the locker room. "You can't play it careful. You can't play it hesitant. You've got to pull the trigger."
Ah, yes, pull the trigger. Those were the same three words Elway, the Broncos' first-year executive vice president of football operations, had chosen to impart to Tebow in an interview with the Denver Post last Tuesday.
He knew what he was saying, and he saw no reason for the message to be a subtle one. To Elway – the most accomplished and beloved player in franchise history, a master of the magical finish, and one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time – it was time for Tebow to sling it; to run the offense, rather than running at the first sign of pressure; and to trust his receivers to go up and get the ball.
"That's one of the greatest quarterbacks that ever played the game," Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey said after Sunday's contest. "Anything he says you better listen and take it to heart because he knows what he's talking about. He hasn't won two championships and been in three other [Super Bowls] for no reason. The guy knows the game."
For most of his storied, 16-year career, Elway faced defenses designed to stop him from unleashing his prolific passes with impunity. Often, he burned them anyway. Only once did I see an opposing coach blatantly challenge Elway to throw downfield, as if it were an act of defiance. And that happened in the quarterback's very last game.
As the Falcons prepared to face the Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII, Atlanta coach Dan Reeves – who'd previously coached in Denver and had frequently clashed with Elway – crafted a game plan that loaded up the box to stop All-Pro halfback Terrell Davis. The result? Elway threw for 336 yards in a 34-19 victory, earned Super Bowl MVP honors and told me all about it while smoking a cigar on the balcony of his Ft. Lauderdale hotel room, gazing into the rainy South Florida night.
No, that moment did not suck.
Yes, I've had some pretty cool experiences while doing this "job," and you'd best believe watching Tebow seize the moment on Sunday was one of them.
Part of my enjoyment stemmed from the knowledge of just how much was on the line. In the aftermath of his dreadful, 6-for-22, 60-yard outing against the Chiefs, Tebow's bosses – Elway, Fox and other powerbrokers in the organization – were in full-fledged panic mode. A couple of weeks earlier, they'd considered him their unquestioned starter heading into the 2012 season. Now, even that was open for reassessment.
Last Monday, as preparations began for the Steelers game, some radical short-term alternatives were considered. One, according to two organizational sources, involved playing Tebow only on first downs and inserting his backup, Brady Quinn, for second- and third-down plays. Another plan called for Tebow to be benched in favor of Quinn if he were to struggle early.
Ultimately, Fox decided against such maneuvers. Quinn, in fact, was not informed of either possibility, and he received only eight practice repetitions the entire week.
"It wasn't anything different for me in terms of preparation," Quinn said afterward. "No extra reps. If there was ever [consideration of] a plan, I was never told."
No, it was Tebow's show – and after an ignominious start, it turned out to be a scintillating one.
The first quarter was a washout, with Tebow misfiring on his only two passing attempts, the Broncos gaining just seven yards and Pittsburgh taking a 6-0 lead. The first play of the second quarter was even worse: Tebow hung a pass to wideout Eric Decker that, in addition to being ruled an incompletion (on a replay reversal), resulted in the receiver sustaining what Fox called a "significant" left knee injury after absorbing a low hit from linebacker James Harrison.
And then, as if he'd decided to charge headlong at his demons, Tebow changed everything: He threw a 51-yard pass to Thomas (four receptions, 204 yards) down the left sideline and, two plays later, found wideout Eddie Royal in the right corner of the end zone for a 30-yard score. By halftime, the Broncos had a 20-6 lead, and Tebow looked like the best quarterback on the field.
That changed in the second half as the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger, a two-time Super Bowl winner well-versed in the art of dramatic comebacks, showed his class, ultimately tying the game on a typical flurry of improvisational brilliance: With 3:48 remaining, Roethlisberger (22-of-40, 289 yards, one TD, one interception), limited by a left ankle sprain, scrambled to his right, kept the play alive and fired a gorgeous, 31-yard pass to Jericho Cotchery in the back of the end zone. Nobody does that better, and perhaps only Elway ever has.
Roethlisberger had a chance to win in regulation, driving the Steelers into Denver territory with 29 seconds remaining, but the Broncos' defense snuffed the threat with a pair of sacks – two of its three on the drive, and of its five overall.
After winning the toss in overtime – and given the new rules requiring a first-possession touchdown to end the game, rather than merely a field goal – Fox and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy decided to go for the kill.
"We had some pretty good stats of running the ball a lot on first down," Fox said. "We saw the coverage and we were able to execute."
The Steelers were in a "blitz zero" coverage in which each defensive back is responsible for a receiver and stopping a ball-carrier – either the halfback or quarterback – is paramount. With one receiver motioned to the line (a run cue) and a stacked formation that featured Thomas split to the left as the lone wideout, the play had run-option written all over it.
"It was the perfect call for the perfect defense," Quinn said.
[ Related: Game-winning play design for Broncos ]
Tebow, after receiving the shotgun snap, faked a handoff to halfback Willis McGahee. Sure enough, safeties Polamalu and Mundy (playing for leading tackler Ryan Clark, who sat out because of a blood condition exacerbated at high altitude) bit, drifting toward the line before trying to recover. It was too late. Tebow wound up and delivered the perfect strike to Thomas, who caught it in stride, shed Taylor with a stiff-arm and could have kept running all the way to Foxborough.
At that moment, Tebow, too, had officially relocated, to the rarefied air of playoff-tested gunslingers.
"You can't really judge a guy just off the regular season," Bailey said. "When they get to the playoffs, where it's win or go home, you judge him off of that. You play that well in a playoff game and you put yourself on a different level."
Tebow pulled it off – with a nice assist from Elway. And, as a result, it looks like they'll be together for a long, long time.
One of the things I love about New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton is that, unlike many of his hyper-paranoid peers, he doesn't make an effort to conceal his mouth (by laminated play-card or otherwise) while calling plays on the sidelines. It's as if Payton is saying to the opposing coaches, "I don't care if you know what the call is – we'll still roll up yards on you." Of course, when you have a quarterback as locked-in and deadly accurate as Drew Brees is, there's not much reason to stress over the potential perils of lip-reading. On Saturday, after being limited to 10 points at the half (and trailing by four), Brees and the Saints went absolutely nuts in the final two quarters and rolled to a 45-28 victory over the Detroit Lions. Brees completed 33 of 43 passes for 466 yards and three touchdowns, and the Saints – who never punted – racked up a postseason-record 626 yards. "It was going well in the first half and then got out of control," Lions safety Chris Harris said Sunday. "Yeah, [Brees is] pretty damn good. When he gets in a zone, he's a monster." The monster will spend next Saturday at the stadium formerly known as Monster Park in a divisional-round game against the San Francisco 49ers, who may or may not harbor some bitterness over the Saints' repeated blitzing in the teams' preseason opener at the Superdome. "I don't think being 13-3 you can use the first preseason game as motivation," Saints linebacker Scott Shanle said Sunday. "They were still learning one another's names at that point." You can bet the Niners will be sick of hearing Brees' name by Saturday – whether they can keep him from shredding their secondary the way he did the Lions' is another matter.
[ Related: Teams should abandon punts when playing Saints ]
Nearly 28 years ago, Raiders linebacker Jack Squirek hastened the team's blowout victory over the Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII by picking off a Joe Theismann screen seconds before halftime and racing in for a dagger of a touchdown. On Saturday in Houston, Texans defensive end J.J. Watt came through with an updated interpretation of Squirek's feat – with an upgraded degree of difficulty. Locked in a 10-10 tie with the Cincinnati Bengals with a minute left in the first half, Watt was a mere three yards from fellow rookie Andy Dalton when the quarterback fired a crisp pass to his right. Watt snatched it out of the air as though it were a Wiffle Ball and sprinted 29 yards for the winning points in a 31-10 victory. "He's been batting balls all year in practice and in games," Texans tackle Eric Winston said Sunday night. "I felt like it was only a matter of time. He picked a good time. The guy has 11 ½-inch hands, the biggest at the [NFL scouting] combine. He makes everything look small." On Sunday in Baltimore, Watt will try to help the Texans play big against the second-seeded Ravens, a team that defeated them 29-14 in October.
[ Related: Andy Dalton has rough playoff debut ]
Despite the defeat, the Bengals still had a surprisingly successful season, and I hope they're relevant again in 2012 so I can continue to get my Jerome Simpson fix. For the second time in three weeks, the acrobatic wideout made a move out of "The Matrix," leaping over Houston cornerback Brice McCain while racing downfield after a third-quarter catch. It wasn't quite as awesome as his flip-for-touchdown against the Cardinals, but then again, what is? … The New York Giants were pretty far from awesome for much of 2011, but they're starting to get that 2007 postseason glow. The Giants' 24-2 (yep, you read that right) victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday included many of the elements that carried the '07 team to an unlikely Super Bowl championship, including Eli Manning slipping away from pressure and making plays downfield, a suddenly revived running game and, most of all, a dominant defensive line. Among Atlanta's offensive struggles – that was quite an audition by coordinator Mike Mularkey, a reported candidate for the Dolphins' and Jaguars' head-coaching jobs, with zero points produced – were a pair of unsuccessful fourth-and-1 sneaks by quarterback Matt Ryan. Fittingly, the Falcons' last gasp ended on a fourth-down sack of Ryan by standout defensive end Osi Umenyiora, evoking memories of '07. The Giants hope the memories come flooding back next Sunday against the top-seeded Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, site of their overtime victory in the '07 NFC championship game.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. How many ridiculously killer songs the late, great Bob Marley left us – and how joyous it felt to be at the Ogden Theater Saturday night as the latest incarnation of his old band, The Wailers, played about 20 of my favorites. And I was still feeling irie when, with 23 seconds left in the first quarter and the Steelers up 6-0, the Sports Authority Field scoreboard exhorted fans to "Get Up Stand Up" (though I don't think that form of collective defiance was quite what Marley and Peter Tosh had in mind when they wrote the reggae classic in 1973).
2. Why someone who, during the 20-plus years I've covered him, has been as consistently forthright and guileless as Jeff Fisher would be presumed by anyone to be leveraging either of the two franchises seeking his services as head coach. As I wrote last week, Fisher came away from his interview with the Miami Dolphins highly impressed with owner Stephen Ross and confident in the organization's commitment to fielding a winning team. As I've since noted on Twitter, St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke made a similarly positive impression on Fisher during their meetings in Denver on Wednesday and Thursday. And on Sunday morning, as Fisher was headed to the Nashville Airport to fly to St. Louis for a tour of the Rams' training facility, the former longtime Titans coach had not yet made a decision about his future. Fisher, according to a source familiar with his thinking, was excited about the prospect of coaching both teams and felt it was "50-50" as to which team he'd ultimately choose. He hadn't yet entered into specific contract negotiations with either franchise (another blow to the leverage theory) and thought his decision-making process could extend into the latter part of the week. You can take this information for what it's worth – everything, in my humble opinion – or you can come up with your own, less-informed theories about what Fisher's thinking and how he's trying to put one over on various folks. Hey, it's a free country. But Fisher, as the weekend came to a close, hadn't come to any decision, and he was torn about two career opportunities he considered equally enticing.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
One of the charming storylines heading into Saturday's Broncos-Patriots game will involve the reunion of Tebow and the man who drafted him, former Denver coach Josh McDaniels, who officially returned to New England Monday as an offensive assistant for Bill Belichick. And while my extremely low regard for McDaniels is no secret, that's not what this rant is about. Instead, I want a know how a coach who, until a few days ago, was still under contract to the St. Louis Rams – for whom he coordinated the NFL's worst scoring offense in 2011 – can be allowed by the league to skip out of town and slide onto a playoff team's staff while the postseason is in progress? If, apparently, there's no rule against this, there should be, for numerous reasons.
[ Photos: Broncos' amazing wild-card win over Steelers ]
First of all, in this case, the Pats may be gaining a competitive advantage because of McDaniels' obvious familiarity with many of the Broncos' players. He's also the guy who was the Pats' offensive coordinator during Tom Brady's record-setting, MVP season in 2007. With current coordinator Bill O'Brien likely to be preoccupied with his new, concurrent duties as Penn State's recently hired head coach, it's not far-fetched to predict that McDaniels could play a major role in game-planning and calling plays for as long as the Pats are in the postseason. The league should be especially concerned about this potential competitive edge given that both Belichick and McDaniels have been linked to cheating scandals in the past five years – if nothing else, it's a very bad look. I also object to this move out of principle. The 2011 season should be treated as a separate entity, and if a coach such as McDaniels wants to line up a new gig, it should be effective after the team in question's final game of this season. That's certainly the spirit of the rule that applies to players, who are saddled with a mid-October trade deadline and, after that, are at the mercy of their employers' kind-heartedness (as Kyle Orton was in surprisingly securing his Broncos release from Elway) and a waiver system before choosing their same-season relocation scenario. Finally, I wonder what kind of precedent this might set. For example, after Todd Haley got fired as the Chiefs' head coach in mid-December, the Broncos could have hired him as an offensive consultant before their regular-season-ending game against Kansas City. Or maybe Haley – who's reportedly headed back to Arizona – can come aboard and join Fox's staff now, if only so he can be dispatched to shake hands with his old buddy McDaniels after Saturday's game.
TEXT/DIRECT MESSAGE/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
– Text Sunday morning from Suggs, on facing the Texans next Sunday.
"ItsShaqThompson is now following you on Twitter"
– Email Sunday morning from the five-star safety who'll be spending his Saturdays next fall in the Center of the Universe (as part of Cal's hellacious recruiting class).
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- John Elway