DENVER -- The Denver Broncos can thank Josh McDaniels for supplying one of the most improbable playoff wins in team history.
In fact, they can extend their gratitude to their reviled former head coach in person on Saturday night.
In an AFC West season that refuses to stop twisting chaotically, we will be treated to an unexpected storyline when the amusingly perplexing Broncos continue their unlikely postseason journey at New England on Saturday in an 8 p.m. ET kickoff. On a day the top-seeded Patriots confirmed McDaniels has rejoined the team, the Broncos qualified to face them with a thrilling 29-23 overtime victory over the heavily favored Steelers on Sunday in the best of the four wild-card games.
McDaniels, who spent the 2011 season with Rams, will be an offensive assistant for the playoffs and is expected to be the offensive coordinator in New England next season. He was the Patriots’ offensive coordinator prior to being hired as the coach in Denver. He was fired after 28 games in Denver.
A week ago, it seemed far-fetched that the Broncos would beat the Steelers and McDaniels would be actually coaching in the playoffs.
But that’s the 2011 season for you.
The Broncos-McDaniels showdown was made possible by an 80-yard pass play from redeemed quarterback Tim Tebow to receiver Demaryius Thomas on the first offensive play of overtime. According to ESPN Stats & Information, it was the longest overtime touchdown in NFL playoff history.
McDaniels targeted the pass-catch combination as a potentially dangerous postseason pair when he made Thomas the No. 22 overall pick and Tebow the No. 25 overall pick of the 2010 draft. It was McDaniels’ second and final draft in Denver.
McDaniels was widely criticized for drafting Thomas over Dez Bryant, who went No. 24 to Dallas, and for taking Tebow, period. First-year Broncos coach John Fox’s biggest challenge was trying to make something of the departed McDaniels’ criticized draft classes and the elephant in the room, Tebow.
Now, Fox, Tebow and company will take on McDaniels.
The Broncos go to New England with renewed faith in their passing game after improving to 4-0 in overtime games this season.
After struggling horribly in the past two games, Tebow regained his passing success, completing 10 of 21 passes for 316 yards. Thomas had 204 yards receiving on four catches.
From the first quarter of the Buffalo game in Week 16 through the first quarter Sunday, the Broncos had 18 punts and six turnovers in 28 possessions. They scored only 10 points in the stretch.
However, after going 0-for-2 passing in the first quarter, Tebow threw for 185 yards in the second quarter as Denver turned a 6-0 deficit into a 20-6 halftime lead. It was Tebow’s best quarter in his 15-start career.
Tebow had five passes of 30-plus yards Sunday against a Pittsburgh defense that was ranked No. 1 in the NFL against the pass this season.
During the week, Broncos football czar and Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway said that Tebow needed to “pull the trigger” and try to make some plays in the passing game. In the past two games, Tebow -- who was impressive against New England in Week 15 -- was tentative and reluctant to throw.
He appeared to start Sunday’s game that way, but after completing a 51-yard pass to Thomas second play of the second quarter, Tebow settled down and started to look like the improved passer he became earlier in December.
“I think that definitely gave us some momentum,” Tebow said of his early second-quarter success. “We were cooking pretty good from then on out.”
However, Tebow saved his best for last.
The Broncos’ offensive staff was planning to run the play to Thomas on their first play of overtime. Thomas said he thought he had a good chance to score when he saw he was in single coverage with Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor. Taylor had no chance.
Thomas beat Taylor off the line, caught a bullet from Tebow at the Denver 38, raced across the field to the end zone and into a tunnel as the crowd erupted, giving Denver its first playoff win in six years.
The unlikely day ended with Tebow taking a victory lap around the stadium, slapping the hands of fans.
Late in the week, there had been speculation that Tebow would be spelled by Brady Quinn on Sunday and talk about Denver needing to find a new quarterback this offseason got new life.
All that talk is off. It’s Tebow time again.
"He showed he’s an NFL quarterback today,” Broncos running back Willis McGahee said. "Case closed.”
Denver entered the playoffs with no juice at all. It was the eighth team in NFL history to enter the postseason with three straight losses and appeared to have no chance.
After Tebow showed again he can throw the ball, and the Denver defense continued its resurgence -- it pressured Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger all game and had five sacks -- the Broncos feel good about themselves again.
They remember they squandered a 16-7 lead with turnovers in a 41-23 loss to the Patriots three weeks ago. Sunday, the Broncos showed what can happen when they play with ball security.
“Everyone said we backed into the playoffs,” cornerback Champ Bailey said. “But we won a game in the playoffs and we’re moving on. We must be doing something right.”
Bring on McDaniels.