So far this season, Tim Tebow has been bad, then good, then bad again, then kind of OK for a while, then amazingly, atrociously bad. In Sunday’s playoff game against the Steelers, the Denver quarterback/future eight-term U.S. president entered a bizarre quantum state in which he was both great and terrible at the same time. The Broncos beat the Steelers 29-23 in overtime because Pittsburgh’s top-rated defense schemed as if it were facing a six-year-old heaving a medicine ball. By treating Tebow as if he were the worst thrower in NFL history, the Steelers turned him into an NFL playoff winner.
There was nothing wrong with the Steelers’ macro defensive philosophy. Dubious of Tebow’s ability to propel his arm in a forward motion, Pittsburgh dared the Broncos to win by throwing. The Steelers’ specific methods, however, eliminated Tebow’s primary weakness.
Tim Tebow is, to put it politely, inconsistent. To put it impolitely, he could hit the broad side of a barn on consecutive throws so long as you positioned him in front of eight to 10 barns arrayed side-by-side. Instead of forcing Tebow to complete short passes to march the Broncos into scoring range, the Steelers pulled their safeties forward to ensure that Denver couldn’t pound away with its running game.
By playing nine and even 10 men in the box, Pittsburgh ensured that any play-action pass that Tebow completed would go for huge yardage. Tebow was just 10 for 21 on Sunday, but five of those 10 completions went for at least 30 yards. One of those came on the first (and last) play of overtime, when the Broncos cleverly faked a first-down run, leaving Demaryius Thomas in man coverage without a safety over the top. Tebow found Thomas across the middle, and—after a great stiff arm at mid-field—the Broncos receiver ran down the sideline for an 80-yard touchdown. Why did the Broncos win? Because the Steelers held Tim Tebow in such low esteem that they didn’t believe he could complete a simple crossing pattern.
It wasn’t just the Pittsburgh defense who lowered the bar for Tebow. With less than two minutes to go in regulation, the master of the fourth-quarter comeback needed to gain around 25 yards to position Denver for a game-winning field goal. Instead, he threw a ground ball to Thomas on third-and-8. “Nice shuffle in the pocket by Tim Tebow, but that’s a tough throw,” said CBS’ Phil Simms, narrating a replay of a pass that Drew Brees would’ve completed 1,000 out of 1,000 times. Earlier in the game, Simms—behaving like a parent who puts each one of his child’s drawings on the refrigerator—claimed that a woefully wide heave to an open Eddie Royal was a “pretty good throwaway.” Atta boy, Timmy!
Along with those pretty good throwaways, Tebow’s occasional long strikes staked Denver to a 14-point second half lead. But the Steelers—who were playing without running back Rashard Mendenhall, safety Ryan Clark, and defensive linemen Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton—erased that deficit thanks to a confluence of Tebow-esque good fortune: a blown call on a Ben Roethlisberger lateral that prolonged a touchdown drive, a fourth-quarter fumble by Willis McGahee, and a dropped interception by Champ Bailey one play prior to the game-tying touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to Jerricho Cotchery.
But bona fide pro football quarterback Ben Roethlisberger could not out-Tebow Tebow. On what turned out to be the Steelers’ last drive of the game, Roethlisberger stepped up in the pocket, evaded the Denver rush, and lasered a pass to Antonio Brown at the Pittsburgh 37-yard line with 56 seconds to go. It was precisely the pass that Tim Tebow wasn’t able to complete a minute earlier—the one Phil Simms had explained away as a “tough throw.” But Roethlisberger’s completion wasn’t the pass that would win this game. Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin, who had two timeouts in his pocket, did not call one. By the time the Steelers snapped the ball next, there were just 33 seconds left on the clock. Despite another great throw and catch, from Roethlisberger to Emmanuel Sanders, the Steelers would eventually run out of time. In overtime, Tim Tebow got another chance, and the kid with the medicine ball heaved it right where it needed to be.