As if last-minute victories against Miami, New York, San Diego and Chicago were not enough, the Denver Broncos found a way to win in even more thrilling fashion in Sunday afternoon’s Wild Card playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
On the opening play of the overtime period, Denver quarterback Tim Tebow connected over the middle with wide receiver DeMaryius Thomas. Thomas would stiff arm Pittsburgh cornerback Ike Taylor and gallop the length of the field for the game-winning score.
The 29-23 win assures that Denver’s astounding 2011 season will continue for at least one more week.
The game-winning touchdown was not simply a “let’s take a shot and see what happens
” move by Broncos Offensive Coordinator Mike McCoy. Once Denver won the overtime coin toss and elected to take possession first, the decision to call a play-action fake and pass to Thomas had been discussed on the Denver sidelines.
The thought was to try to catch the Steelers off-guard by going with a passing play instead of the expected run.
The plan worked.
McCoy called a run for the opening play on nine of Denver’s first ten possessions. On the eleventh, it was a play-action fake and 17 yard pass to the middle of the field that resulted, eight seconds and 63 yards later, in the game-winning touchdown.
Fully expecting a run, the Steelers stacked the box – all eleven defensive players were within five yards of the line of scrimmage when the ball was snapped – and thus Thomas only had to win a one-on-one matchup with Taylor to win the game.
“I was walking to the line and I saw the safety come down and I knew at that time, with the play we had called, all I had to do was beat the corner,” Thomas said after the game.
The play call was a stroke of genius and execution was flawless.
For at least that one play, McCoy was able to out-wit legendary Pittsburgh Defensive Coordinator, and Pro Football Hall of Famer, Dick LeBeau.
Denver receiver Eddie Royal agreed, saying, “It was good change-up and you've got to give our coaches a lot of credit for noticing that we had been running the ball a lot on 1st down and play-action would be great so they did a good job of setting it up and we hit the homerun.”
Thomas had learned from a small error on an earlier play that could have, but did not, result in a touchdown.
In the second quarter, Tebow connected with Thomas for a 58-yard gain. The play was a momentum-shifter and would lead, two plays later, to Denver’s second touchdown.
Thomas, however, was somewhat let down by the play. After catching the ball Thomas tried twice to cut back and turn around Taylor, only to eventually get tackled at the Steelers’ 12-yard line. Thomas explained that after the drive the coaches told him “just use your speed” and thus on the game-winning score he went into a dead sprint towards the south end zone after making the catch and delivering a swift stiff-arm.
Like in many of their wins during the regular season, Denver had to overcome some adversary prior to making another miraculous, game-winning play.
Down 20-6 on their opening possession of the third quarter, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw a backwards pass to receiver Mike Wallace. Wallace mishandled the pass and the loose ball was recovered by Broncos defensive end Elvis Dumervil.
It should have been first and ten for Denver with the ball at the Pittsburgh 19. It is entirely reasonable to assume Denver would have punched the ball in and taken a commanding 27-6 lead.
Yet an official called the backwards pass an incomplete forward pass and blew his whistle. That prevented Denver Head Coach John Fox from being able to challenge the play despite reply evidence clearly showing the pass traveling backwards.
Pittsburgh subsequently marched the length of the field, scored a touchdown and dramatically altered the landscape of the game by cutting Denver’s lead to 20-13.
The Steelers defense stiffened considerably in the second half. Pittsburgh allowed Denver to score only one field goal and forced their only turnover of the game when Ryan Mundy stripped the ball from Willis McGahee. Pittsburgh quickly capitalized off the fumble, tying the score at 23 after a 7-play, 55-yard drive that culminated in a touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to receiver Jericho Cotchery.
Denver’s defense, however, had just enough left in the tank to keep the Steelers from scoring and winning the game.
Von Miller and Robert Ayers each sacked Roethlisberger on Pittsburgh’s final possession and Champ Bailey batted away a pass (after earlier dropping an interception in the end zone) to keep the Steelers out of field goal range and send the game to overtime.
The rest was history.
Fox was quick to point out Tebow, who had the best game of his young career, was instrumental in the victory saying, “We had struggled (offensively) over the last couple weeks and I think a lot of the progress today was because of our quarterback…I thought he stepped up in a huge way tonight.”
The Broncos will travel to New England to take on the Patriots in the Divisional Playoffs on Saturday night. New England stomped Denver 43-21 in week 15 and on Sunday night announced they had hired former Denver Head Coach Josh McDaniels as an offensive assistant.
Can Denver continue to defy the odds and knock another perennial AFC powerhouse out of the playoffs? At this point, anything is possible.