In a hallway next to the rowdy Broncos locker room, a small prayer group found the last quiet place in Denver. On one side stood Bob Tebow, the father who took his 15-year-old son Timmy, to the Philippines, helping to find homes for the islands' orphaned children. On the other stood Bailey Knaub, a 16-year-old girl suffering from Wegener's granulomatosis, a rare vascular disorder for which she has undergone 73 surgeries.
In the middle was Tim Tebow, his left shoulder wrapped, his right elbow bloodied, his mind already moving from the playbook to the Good Book.
After a week during which he learned that his job might be in jeopardy following three poor starts and three defeats, the Broncos' quarterback awoke on the morning of his first playoff game, grabbed his iPhone and typed "Hebrews 12:1--2" to his Facebook and Twitter flock, words that say in part, Let us run with patience the race that is set before us.
"I've always loved that verse because it's very encouraging, and it was very encouraging this week," Tebow explained in the hallway. "It talks about having endurance—whether it's endurance in your faith or endurance as we play a game."
Against the favored 12--4 Steelers on Sunday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Tebow endured for four grueling quarters and 11 heart-stopping seconds. After the Broncos had gashed Pittsburgh's No. 1--ranked defense for 131 rushing yards, Denver offensive coordinator Mike McCoy guessed that the Steelers' safeties would bite hard toward the line of scrimmage on the first play of overtime, leaving the cornerbacks vulnerable to a big pass. McCoy was prophetic. From the Denver 20, Tebow faked a handoff to Willis McGahee, drawing the defenders in, and hit Demaryius Thomas in stride on a deep crossing route at the Denver 37, in front of cornerback Ike Taylor. Tebow watched Thomas fight off Taylor with a stiff arm and race all the way into the end zone for a 29--23 victory that set up a rematch with the Patriots on Saturday night in the AFC divisional round.
"We were on the sideline talking about [the play call] before we even went out on the field," Thomas said. "Walking to the line, I saw the safety come down, and I knew the only person I had to beat was the corner. The middle of the field was wide open."
Said Tebow, who finished 10 of 21 for 316 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions (a 125.6 passer rating), "I just tried to fit it in there, and he made a great catch."
The touchdown set off a celebration worthy of the franchise's biggest victory since Super Bowl XXXIII in January 1999. Tebow sprinted downfield, leaped into the stands, then fell to one knee in prayer. Broncos president John Elway punched the sky with two hands. And coach John Fox, who last week pronounced backup quarterback Brady Quinn ready if his starter struggled, wrapped Tebow in a hug and squeezed him tight. The NFL's most improbable playoff squad—left for dead by many after finishing so poorly and ending up 8--8—had taken its fourth overtime victory in four chances.
"A team that has won Super Bowls, that was in the Super Bowl last year, that is always in the playoffs, against a young team that hasn't been to the playoffs, that kind of backed in," said Broncos cornerback Andre Goodman, laying out the tale of the tape between Pittsburgh and Denver. "But we have a guy back there [in Tebow] that, when the game is on the line, I don't think anybody would bet against."
As the party spilled into the stadium tunnels and surrounding streets, defensive end Elvis Dumervil lingered at his locker. After missing the 2010 season with a torn pectoral muscle, Dumervil played through a shoulder injury in September that cost him two games and an ankle injury in October that forced him into a walking boot. On Sunday evening he slowly packed his duffel bag and recounted the details of the battle, the spirit on the Denver sideline and the toughness of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who, hobbled by a high-ankle sprain, brought Pittsburgh back from a two-touchdown deficit to tie the game late in the fourth quarter.
"He just was not quitting," Dumervil said, shaking his head. "The thing is, with all those close games we won this season, it's like we've been prepping for this all year."
That the Broncos must travel to Foxborough, Mass., to face top-seeded New England, places them right back in the role of underdog, a position they have come to relish. After a 2--5 start Denver ripped off six straight wins, each seeming to outdo the previous one in degree of difficulty and incredulity. It was New England that finally popped the balloon, beating the Broncos 41--23 at Mile High on Dec. 18 and sending them skidding on a three-game, season-ending losing streak.
The rematch stands to be juicy. On Sunday the Patriots added former Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels as an offensive assistant. Though he flamed out in Denver with an 11--17 record in 2009 and '10 and remains persona non grata in Colorado, McDaniels did not leave the Broncos totally adrift. With the 22nd pick in the 2010 draft he selected Thomas, a 6'3", 235-pound wideout from Georgia Tech. Three picks later, to a tidal wave of criticism, he took Tebow, the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner and two-time national champion whose unorthodox skills were hard to envision translating to the NFL. Both have been labeled busts in their short pro careers (Thomas had just two starts as a rookie), but they are shedding the tags bit by bit.
"I have been through a lot of ups and downs," said Thomas. "To do some of the things I did feels great because I could be the big-play receiver they drafted me to be."
The Steelers secondary had no answer for Thomas or Tebow, especially with its leading tackler, safety Ryan Clark, out because of the sickle-cell trait he carries in his blood, a condition that leaves him susceptible to organ damage if he exerts himself at high altitude. He nearly died after playing in Denver in 2007, losing his spleen, his gallbladder and 40 pounds. ("When the doctor tells you he's going to pray, it's a grave situation," Clark said last week.)
Before facing Denver, the Steelers made a vow to Clark. "We don't want Cleveland to be R.C.'s last game [of the season]," Pittsburgh cornerback William Gay said.
The Steelers couldn't keep the promise. With McCoy opening the playbook—allowing Tebow to "pull the trigger" as Elway had hoped—Tebow and Thomas had career highs in yards passing and receiving, respectively. At one point in the second quarter Tebow had consecutive completions of 51, 30 and 58 yards, two of them to Thomas. And then there was the 80-yard game-winnner. "I knew if I could get open," said Thomas, "I could make plays."
Said Tebow of his receiver: "The coaches coached him up well on how to attack the corners with splits, with timing, with the different play actions, double moves, and he did a great job with it."
Two time zones away, at a house party in Jacksonville, Tebow's former running backs coach at Nease High, Adam Hartle, watched a win that felt familiar. "Timmy's been told three times that he can't play quarterback—in high school, in college and in the pros," he said. "The reason Denver is winning is the same reason Nease won a state championship and Florida won two national championships. It's a testament to what he brings to the table."
Hartle, who became a game-analysis coordinator for the Gators, recalls trying to persuade Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Dan Mullen to recruit Tebow. "We had him fourth behind Matt Stafford, Mitch Mustain and Jevan Snead," Hartle says. "You heard all the same criticisms you hear now about his mechanics, his wind-up, his slow delivery. We didn't make Tebow our Number 1 [QB recruit] until a month or two before signing day."
Hartle sees Tebow finally breaking through in Denver, convincing hearts and minds with true grit. "It's been a rocky road, but he never says anything bad," Hartle says. "It's like that Bible quote he chose about patience. He waits his turn, then he makes 21 players around him better."
For Tebow, the intersection between faith and football endures. So, too, does the Broncos' season.
"WE'RE A YOUNG TEAM THAT KIND OF BACKED IN," SAYS GOODMAN. "BUT WE HAVE A GUY BACK THERE THAT, WHEN THE GAME IS ON THE LINE, I DON'T THINK ANYBODY WOULD BET AGAINST."
Photograph by ROBERT BECK
HEAD FIRST Tebow plunged through Pittsburgh's top-ranked defense for a second-quarter score, then was all smiles after his latest jaw-dropper—an 80-yard game-winning TD pass on the first play of overtime.
[See caption above]
PETER READ MILLER
COOL KIDS Tebow was unflustered (no sacks, no interceptions) by the playoff pressure, as was fellow 2010 first-rounder Thomas (above left), who stiff-armed his way past Taylor and raced to victory.
PETER READ MILLER (ROEHTLISBERGER)
SHUT DOWN Denver's pass rush harassed Roethlisberger all day, and will aim to do the same to Brady on Saturday.