(Reuters) - Stumbling into the playoffs on a three-game losing skid, the Denver Broncos showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday was seen by many as a referendum on Tim Tebow’s future as the National Football League (NFL) team’s starting quarterback.
Denver entered their wild-card matchup against the NFL’s best defense having struggled mightily behind their quarterback during the final weeks of the regular season and it seemed “Tebow Time” was about to expire.
But in Sunday’s stunning 29-23 win over Pittsburgh, Tebow showed he still has plenty up his sleeve, like a passing game that appeared out of thin air and included an 80-yard strike to Demaryius Thomas on the first play of overtime for the win.
“We had struggled over the last couple weeks and a lot of that progress was because of our quarterback,” said Denver coach John Fox. “A lot was said, a lot was written and there’s been a lot of critique on him but I thought he stepped up in a huge way tonight and I think he was a big part of us winning the game.”
While Denver’s surge into the playoffs gave birth to Tebow-Mania, the Broncos mid-season turnaround had as much to do with a stingy defense - limiting opponents to 15 or fewer points five times - as it did the inspired play of Tebow.
During that giddy stretch of success, ‘Mile High Miracles’ were commonplace in Denver with Tebow manufacturing five fourth-quarter comebacks and three overtime wins in the regular season.
But as the Broncos prepared to face the Steelers, support gave way to speculation about how long Tebow would last before being replaced by backup Brady Quinn if the Denver offense continued to sputter.
While some Tebow backers began to have doubts, Fox, who altered the Denver offense to help better suit his unorthodox quarterback’s unique abilities and skill set, said he had none.
“I never doubted, he is a pretty strong young man,” Fox told reporters. “It wasn’t all about Tim, a lot has been made about Tim and he did a tremendous job but I don’t think they had too much credit for the whole team, I‘m not talking about the Steelers, I‘m talking about people who write stuff.”
Tebow’s shortcomings as a passer have been well documented.
His numbers on Sunday against the Steelers, while solid, would hardly shine alongside even average outings by some of the NFL’s top quarterbacks like Drew Brees and Tom Brady.
But Tebow’s 10 completions on 21 attempts for 316 yards and two touchdowns were enough to earn Denver their first playoff win since 2005 and his first since entering the NFL in 2010.
Tebow, who hits the road for a second round game against the New England Patriots next week and is two wins away from a Super Bowl berth, had heard the critics all along but was determined to prove them wrong.
“When there were ups and downs this team didn’t change, we stayed the same. We went out and worked and tried to get better and try to improve every day,” said Tebow.
“It sounds cliche but that’s what we tried to do and not listen to too much of the outside talk.”
Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Frank Pingue