DENVER --Coming out of the huddle to begin overtime, the Denver Broncos had 24 first downs in the game. On 23 of those plays, they ran the ball.
Knowing this, the Pittsburgh Steelers loaded the box and brought both safeties up, just like the Broncos thought they would. When receiver Demaryius Thomas saw the safety creep up before the snap, he knew all he had to do was beat the cornerback and the middle of the field would be wide open.
So when quarterback Tim Tebow took the snap from the Broncos own 20-yard line, he put the ball into running back Willis McGahee's gut, giving the Broncos 24 runs on 25 first downs.
Or so the Steelers thought.
"I had a good fake and got the backers to run up to the line," McGahee said. "And I was just hoping nobody blitzed."
The play-action froze the defense and gave Tebow time as he took the ball out and waited for Thomas to get open. Just as he had been doing all game, Thomas beat the cornerback and Tebow delivered a pass to him in stride. After the second-year receiver made the catch, he stiff-armed cornerback Ike Taylor and raced 80 yards down the sideline for the game-winning touchdown and the longest scoring play in NFL overtime playoff history.
"It is amazing because I haven't played explosive like I did in college in a long time," Thomas said. "To come out and make plays tonight, and win a playoff game, is just amazing."
Thomas' game-winning catch-and-run capped off a record-setting night for the former Georgia Tech star. His 204 receiving yards are a franchise postseason record and seventh-most in a single game in NFL postseason history.
And he did it on just four receptions -- good for an average of 51 yards-per-catch, the second-highest total in a single game in NFL history, regular season or playoffs (min. four receptions).
"The catch is less of an issue than his ability, of course, to break free and the run after," Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin said. "The run after was significant, not only on that (game-winning) play, but in several instances tonight."
While the performance might have surprised some people, it didn't come as a shock to as anyone in the Broncos locker room. In fact, McGahee told him the night before the game that it was his time to shine.
"It's crazy," McGahee said. "I don't know how, but I said, 'Man, you're going to have a breakout game.' He's a gamebreaker. Look at his stats, look at what he did. He's a gamebreaker. I'm happy for him."
Thomas' performance was no fluke. Against Minnesota in December, he had 144 yards on four catches and two touchdowns en route to a month that saw him lead in the conference in receiving yards.
And all week, he spent hours in the film room studying the Steelers' Taylor and stayed after practice with his fellow receivers to work on route-running and timing in the passing game.
"Throughout the whole week, I knew they match up Ike with the top, biggest receiver," Thomas said. "I just watched him the whole week and the things that he does. I knew if I could get open against him, I could make plays."
That's exactly what he did.
Every catch by Thomas seemed to be the biggest play of the game -- until he made his next catch.
His first one came on third-and-12 when the Broncos were struggling early in the second quarter. Denver was down 6-0, backed up on its own 18-yard line and hadn't gotten a first down yet.
But on the play, Tebow scrambled left and heaved the ball deep down the left sideline. Thomas, who had gotten behind the defense, caught it on the sideline for a 51-yard gain and a momentum-changer for the Broncos.
"When I hit (Thomas) down the sideline -- that's a play I was being very aggressive, trusting him," Tebow said. "I couldn't see exactly where the (defensive back) was -- it was kind of a broken play. I just trusted him, and he made a great play."
The Broncos would go on to score a few plays later, giving them a 7-6 lead they would never give back to Pittsburgh.
Then on the next drive, Tebow found Thomas again, this time on a throw the quarterback made from the pocket. Thomas caught the ball and ran 58 yards to set the Broncos up for their second touchdown in three minutes.
Thomas caught one more pass, a 15-yard reception in the fourth quarter on third down, before his game-ender on the first play in overtime.
"It was great because I knew he had it in him," receiver Eddie Royal said. "I'm glad everybody finally got a chance to see that. He's that type of player. He can come out and put performances up like that all the time. It's really no surprise to me. I'm just happy it came at this big moment."
For the receiver who tore his Achilles in February and missed the first half of the season with a broken finger, it was pure elation.
"I have been through a lot of ups and downs -- injures and stuff," Thomas said. "I was on the field, off the field and hadn't felt great until the past four weeks. To be able to go out and do some of the things I did tonight, it feels great because I could be the big-play receiver that they drafted me to be."