DENVER -- In one play, Tim Tebow and Demaryius Thomas gave the Broncos something the franchise hadn't felt since the 2005 season.
The euphoria of a playoff win.
On the first play of overtime, Tebow hit Thomas for an 80-yard, catch-and-run touchdown to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers 29-23 in the Wild Card round of the AFC playoffs at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Denver will travel to New England for a rematch against the Patriots in the Divisional round of the playoffs this Saturday, Jan. 14, at 6 p.m. MST.
"This is why you do it," Head Coach John Fox said. "It's moments like tonight. ... Whenever you put all the work that we put into these things, these moments are why."
It was easy to see from the postgame celebration -- the cheers, the hugs, the high-fives with fans -- just how important this win was to the team.
"We just tried to step up," said Tebow, who finished with 316 passing yards, 50 rushing yards and three total touchdowns. "We knew that it's win or go home. This team wanted to fight and we wanted to play another game."
The back-and-forth contest got off to a decidely pro-Pittsburgh start.
When the first quarter ended, the Broncos had eight total yards on seven offensive plays. The Steelers led 6-0 and Denver faced a second-and-12 at its own 18-yard line.
The first play of the second quarter saw Eric Decker's knee injured by a James Harrison hit on a 21-yard reception that was overturned via a Steelers challenge.
But with their backs against the wall, the Broncos took control of the game.
On the very next play, third-and-12, Tebow hit Thomas for a 51-yard reception -- the first of his four catches for 204 yards. After a 1-yard run by Lance Ball, Tebow found Eddie Royal for a 30-yard touchdown to put Denver on the board -- and in the lead -- 7-6.
"Once we were able to see what Pittsburgh was doing, we were able to make adjustments," Fox said. "At the end of the day, it's the players making plays. Over the last few weeks into the playoffs, we didn't make as many plays as we did on that 7-1 run. We needed to capture that in a bottle, and we did tonight."
After a Pittsburgh three-and-out, Denver again quickly moved down the field, spurred on by another Tebow-to-Thomas bomb. The 58-yard reception put the Broncos at the Pittsburgh 12-yard line, and Tebow did the rest with his legs, gaining 4 yards and then the final 8 for a touchdown run to give Denver a 14-6 lead.
The defense chimed in with its own big play on the ensuing drive, as Quinton Carter intercepted Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and returned it to the 18-yard line.
"Man, it felt wonderful," Carter said. "We were in a perfect call. We knew the tendencies and knew the area of the field they like to work. I was in the right place at the right time and finally got one."
Denver settled for a 20-yard Matt Prater field goal to extend the lead to 17-6, and Prater put points on the board again on the offense's next drive with a 28-yarder, cementing the halftime score at 20-6.
But Pittsburgh wasn't finished just yet.
The Steelers defense forced a Denver punt on the first drive of the third quarter, and got back in the game thanks to an 11-play drive that took 5:56 off the clock.
It was the running game that fueled the drive, as Antonio Brown's 18-yard end-around put Pittsburgh in Denver territory. Isaac Redman's 33-yard scamper placed the ball at the 1-yard line, and Mike Wallace finished the effort with another end-around for a 1-yard touchdown to trim the Broncos lead to 20-13.
“At the end of the day, we knew that they weren’t going away," Andre' Goodman said. "They’re the Steelers."
The Broncos picked up four first downs on their next drive, but an offensive pass interference call put them in a tough down-and-distance, and the offense settled for a 35-yard field goal by Prater to go back up by 10.
The rest of the scoring during regulation belonged to Pittsburgh.
A 20-yard pass from Roethlisberger to Brown and a 28-yard run by Redman put Pittsburgh in position for a 37-yard Shaun Suisham field goal to make it a one-possession game, and the Pittsburgh defense did its job, forcing a Willis McGahee fumble on the following drive to give the ball back to the offense.
Brodrick Bunkley sacked Roethlisberger on the first play of the ensuing drive -- one of five sacks by the Denver defense -- but the Steelers quarterback recovered, and closed out a seven-play drive with a 31-yard touchdown pass to Jerricho Cotchery to tie the game with 3:48 remaining in the fourth quarter.
The Pittsburgh defense forced a punt to give its offense one last chance to win the game in overtime, and the defense knew the task in front of it.
"You look at (Roethlisberger) and what he's done throughout his career -- he's capable of making comebacks like that," Champ Bailey said. "I told everybody, 'They were down 14-0 in the Super Bowl and made a game out of it.' You just have to keep fighting with this team."
That's what the group did, as it has done all year, with the Steelers threatening at the Denver 37-yard line.
First, Elvis Dumervil sacked Roethlisberger and forced a fumble, which the quarterback recovered at his own 44-yard line for an 11-yard loss. Then, Bailey batted away a potential first-down pass to Hines Ward, and finally, with the ball at the Denver 49-yard line, Robert Ayers notched his second sack to end the drive and force overtime.
"I felt like once we got into overtime, we were going to win the game," said Willis McGahee, who had 61 yards on the ground. "The defense did an absolutely great job out there performing tonight. They held those guys down. Ben is a great quarterback, they have a great offensive scheme. The defense went out there and did what they needed to do.”
The Broncos received to start the extra period, and it took just one play -- Thomas' 80-yard score -- to seal the win.
"I love it," Carter said. "This is what I play football for – what we all play for. As a rookie, this is a dream come true – playing on a stage like that against a great historic team. It feels great."
Tebow and Bailey joked that they tried to keep up with Thomas as he made his way into the end zone to celebrate, and Tebow even leaped into the crowd for the first time all season. They celebrated as a team.
"We do this for the guys in our locker room, the guys on our team, the guys that we love," Ayers said. "We put in a lot of work, and that’s our motivating factor. It’s not about what people say or whether people doubt us. We do this for each other, and we’re going to keep fighting and keep bonding. This is a family, and that’s all that really matters.”
The Broncos will enjoy this win for about 24 hours, but the group knows first-hand the type of challenges the New England Patriots will present in less than a week.
Denver fell to the Patriots, 41-23, in Week 15.
“We know what we can’t do, so now we have to figure out what we have to do to win," Bailey said. "That’s a good football team – one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play. We have our hands full. We’re going to work our butts off to get ready for this one.”
Still, Sunday night, the team was happy to let the victory soak in.
“The best feeling I’ve had throughout my whole career, just plain and simple," said Goodman, a 10-year veteran. "Hopefully it gets better week in and week out."