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 night.
The Patriots walloped the Broncos 41-23 last month, sending Tebow into a funk that included seven turnovers and a 40 per cent completion clip — and prompting Elway to implore him to "pull the trigger" in the playoffs.
Did he ever.
And unlike Elway, who lost his first post-season 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 a seriously injured left knee, in the first half.
"They were the No. 1 defence and we are the No. 1 offence 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 this offence today."
Tebow's passer rating of 125.6 was the highest in Broncos post-season 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 centre 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. "But I guess he's been working hard. 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."
Hines Ward called this defeat "just as disappointing" as last year's loss to Green Bay in the Super Bowl.
"I've been on a lot of really good teams, thank God, and I felt this team was up there with them," Polamalu said. "We weren't able to stay healthy and keep a cohesiveness like we wanted to."
Tebow completed 10 of 21 passes and Thomas hauled in four of them for 204 yards after Decker was injured on a hit by linebacker James Harrison.
Thomas, who missed training camp while recovering from a torn Achilles and the start of the season while dealing with a fractured finger, has come on strong of late, averaging 109 yards over the last six games.
But the Broncos' top pick in 2010 — taken three slots ahead of Tebow in the first round — hadn't had done anything like this.
"It's amazing because I haven't played explosive like I did in college in a long time," Thomas said.
Tebow threw two TD passes and also ran 10 times for 50 yards and a touchdown.
"I think we executed a little bit better. We tried to step up," he said. "We knew it was win or go home. This team wanted to fight. We wanted to play another game."
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 offence or defence.
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 taken down once by the league's top defence.
The Broncos snapped a three-game losing streak that had many wondering if they were even worthy of their first playoff in six seasons, and it kept the Steelers from their 34th playoff win, which would have broken a tie with the Cowboys for the most ever.
Tebow led Denver to 20 second-quarter points — they had scored just 13 in the quarter in his 11 starts — but a 20-6 halftime lead didn't last long.
Receiver Mike Wallace had a one-yard TD run, Shaun Suisham of Wallaceburg, Ont., kicked a short field goal and Jerricho Cotchery grabbed a 31-yard TD pass with 3:48 left in regulation to tie it.
The Steelers were nearing field goal range in the final minute of regulation but the Broncos sacked Roethlisberger three times on that final drive, forcing a fumble that Roethlisberger recovered.
"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."
Roethlisberger never got the ball back as Tebow added to his growing list of impossible victories in the blink of an eye and a flick of the wrist.
"He gets a lot of flak when things go wrong," Clark said, "but he played phenomenal today."
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.