It was a chilly January evening in the Mile High City, but the night quickly heated up when the clock struck “Tebow Time" in overtime. A former Heisman Trophy winner had the signature moment of his professional career and for a brief moment a loyal fanbase started believing that their once-struggling team and their quarterback were for real.
Knotted 23-23, in front of nearly 76,000 spectators, and playing under the NFL’s then-new overtime rules, former Denver Broncos first-round draft choice Tim Tebow gunned down wide receiver Demaryius Thomas for an 80-yard touchdown on the very first play from scrimmage in overtime to sew up a shocking 29-23 victory over the heavily favored Pittsburgh Steelers to advance to the 2012 AFC Divisional Round.
"When I saw him scoring, first of all, I just thought, ‘Thank you, Lord,’” Tebow told reporters after the win. “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."
The two sides meet again in the divisional round, and eighth time overall, Sunday at Mile High Stadium. The Broncos' ardent fans and the entire franchise will have no choice but to reflect on the night Tebow pulled off arguably the biggest upset in franchise history and the biggest play of his professional career.
It was a moment of redemption considering all the flack Tebow received throughout that 2011 season, his first and only year as an NFL’s teams No.1 quarterback, and against the formidable Steelers defense.
Tebow took over starting duties from Kyle Orton five games into the season, and went 7-4 under center with a poor 46.5 completion percentage for 1,729 yards and 12 touchdowns to six interceptions while gaining 227 yards and six more scores on the ground.
His play helped erase a 1-3 start and Denver reached the postseason for the first time in six years with an 8-8 record. The Broncos prospects for postseason glory looked bleak, drawing a Pittsburgh defense that finished first in the NFL with 14.2 points allowed per game and sporting six Pro Bowlers and two first-team All-Pros.
Denver’s offense and Tebow came out of the gate poorly, gaining only eight total yards in the first quarter, but in the second stanza Tebow shined. He soared a 30-yard touchdown pass to receiver Eddie Royal and followed up on the next possession with a four-play, 73-yard drive capped by an eight-yard touchdown scamper for a 20-6 halftime lead.
However, the Broncos would put up a goose egg in the third quarter and could only squeeze off Matt Prater’s 35-yard field goal in the fourth, allowing Pittsburgh and Ben Roethlisberger to rally. The Steelers would score on three straight possessions between the late third and early fourth quarters, relying on receiver Mike Wallace’s one-yard touchdown run and then Roethlisberger’s 31-yard bullet to Jerricho Cotchery with 3:48 remaining in the game.
Each side got the ball back one last time in regulation, but couldn’t break the tie, sending the game to overtime. That was the same year the NFL retooled its overtime rules, which wouldn’t allow a team to win the game simply by kicking a field goal. But the new rules also stated that a touchdown on the first possession would constitute a victory.
Denver would win the coin flip, secure the ball, and Tebow provided Broncos fans the kind of elation they hadn’t felt since John Elway last hoisted the Lombardi Trophy. He finished with 316 passing yards, two passing touchdowns and another 50 yards and a score on the ground — by far Tebow’s most complete and best game of his career.
Elway famously tried to shake Tebow of a late-season slump, one that saw him chuck four interceptions to one touchdown in Denver’s final three games of the regular season, by telling him simply “Pull the trigger.”
"I feel like he came out and played confident," 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 offense today."
The victory, at the time, was ultimately bittersweet after Denver followed up the upset with a 45-10 beatdown at the hands of the Super Bowl-bound New England Patriots, but it stands today as the time Tebow was on top of the NFL world.
On Sunday, the Broncos will be the favorites, but may still need some magic at quarterback. And much like the 2012 game, Roethlisberger will be nursing an injury while Tom Brady seems to be lurking in the shadows of the AFC with expectations of another Super Bowl appearance.
This time around it won't be a backup quarterback under center, but rather future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning, who has only shown a faint glimpse of his elite form. Manning was battered and bruised throughout most of the 2015 season, and his last start was arguably the most miserable of his entire career, completing just five of his 20 pass attempts and with four passes intercepted.
The prevailing thought around the NFL is that this is Manning's last season, because he simply can't compete at a high level due to age and injury. There are some that think Manning is done, and the Broncos are making a big mistake by not going with Brock Osweiler. Much like Tebow in 2012, Manning will be under the microscope in Denver against the Steelers.
Broncos fans were witness to a quarterback redemption story before. If they hope to extend their stay in the playoffs, they may need another one.
Check out Tebow's game-winning touchdown pass and the game's full highlights here.