Top 20 Games of 2011

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Game 6: Steelers at Broncos Wild Card

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Two quarterbacks, 27 years apart, in nearly identical situations, working together, even if just for a blink.

In 2011, Denver Broncos QB Tim Tebow started his first career playoff game, and continued the overall Timsanity of his second season, in facing the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC wild-card round, the No. 6 matchup on our list. Tebow improbably won the starting job earlier in the fall and now had one of the best defenses in the league in the Steelers to contend with.

Another Broncos quarterback won the starting job outright in his second year, getting Denver to the playoffs only to face one of the best defenses in the league. The quarterback was John Elway, the year was 1984, and the opponent was -- you guessed it -- those Pittsburgh Steelers.

The only lasers Tebow could produce might be in lasertag. He was not considered a top level quarterback prospect. If anything, he was considered a tailback masquerading as a quarterback, despite his 7-4 record as a starter. The impressive record was attributed to what coach John Fox would label as “competitive greatness.” Whatever the Timtangible was, it was permeating enough that the Broncos front office felt emboldened to deal incumbent starter Kyle Orton to get Tebow in the driver’s seat.

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Incidentally, Elway knew a little something about trading away a veteran starter. The front office did Elway a solid back in the spring of ‘84, dealing journeyman Steve Deberg to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers so that their young phenom could play ball without looking over his shoulder. The Broncos knew that Deberg was not the quarterback to get them to the promised land. So they went with the kid, Elway.

Thus it’s no surprise that a 50-year old Elway, now acting as executive vice president of a franchise he led to five Super Bowls, decided it was time for starter Kyle Orton to go five weeks into 2011. Elway, the athletic prospect turned Hall of Fame quarterback turned front office exec. That happens, like, never.

Either way, his decision to waive Orton -- born out of his own experiences on the field -- gave the current freak athlete Broncos QB the opportunity to shine. And boy did he. Tebow came into the playoff game against the Steelers as arguably the most famous current athlete in the world.

But something strange happened along the way. While Tebow was well-regarded around the league as an excellent runner and a player who could make plays out of the pocket, he flipped the script in the playoffs. The guy who could only throw ducks completed more than a few quality passes against the top-ranked defense in the NFL, in his first playoff game no less. Time and again, the Steelers secondary -- playing without safety Ryan Clark -- got burned. No, not on Willis McGahee runs, or Tebow scrambles, but on Tebow throws.

The number of completions might not stand out (10), but the fact that they went for more than 31 yards a crack certainly does. His accuracy on vertical throws was impressive. One such pass resulted in Denver’s first touchdown to Eddie Royal.

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The Broncos’ second touchdown came about after Tebow hit DeMaryius Thomas in stride against single coverage, a 58-yard catch-and-run. That set up a designed quarterback draw that went for another touchdown, making the score 14-6.

As was the case in the midst of all the Tebowmania last season, the Broncos defense really stepped it up, keeping Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense at bay by bending but not breaking. They were also opportunistic, picking off Roethlisberger once while putting his back on the Mile High grass five times.

Roethlisberger would not be deterred. The two-time Super Bowl winner threw for 289 yards, and hit Jerricho Cotchery from 31 yards out to tie this thriller at 23-all late in the fourth quarter. The Steelers proved they could do more than just move the football -- which they had done all day -- but score touchdowns too. If this thing got to overtime, Denver might be in serious trouble.

It made it to OT, but we’ll never know if Roethlisberger could have taken his team down the field to win. That's because the guy who can’t throw the football threw a strike right in Demaryius Thomas’ wheelhouse on the first play of the extra period. Eighty yards later, and Timsanity took another leap into NFL lore.

As for the greatest quarterback in Broncos history...well let’s just say Elway enjoyed watching Tebow beat the franchise that he couldn’t 27 years ago. It’s not bad being the vice president of a playoff-winning team, even if for a week.

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Headscratcher: So Tebow can’t throw the football, right? Take another look at his second-quarter touchdown to Eddie Royal. It was right on the money -- a perfectly thrown ball laid just over the outstretched arms of Pittsburgh corner William Gay, fit into the smallest of windows, right in Royal’s hands. By the way, Royal’s touchdown was set up by a beautiful 51-yarder to Demaryius Thomas.

(Unheralded) Play of the Game: How about the kid? No, not Tebow, but Steelers rookie Cam Heyward, who hustled down the line into the second level of the defense to both tackle and co-strip Willis McGahee of the football (with Ryan Mundy.)

This play was HUGE. Denver was driving with the football at midfield with a 23-16 lead and 10 minutes to go. The defense had stalled the Pittsburgh offense when it counted most of the day, only allowing one touchdown. Had Heyward not gotten over to the strong side, the Broncos would have made the first down at the Steelers 42. They would have a new set of downs, nearing Matt Prater territory. Instead, the turnover led to another clutch Steelers play, when Ben Roethlisberger scrambled out of the pocket to hit Jerricho Cotchery for a 31-yard touchdown strike.

Play of the Game: Take a big, fat guess. The game-winning pass to Thomas was a pinpoint throw by Tebow with D.T. never breaking stride. The cool part of the climactic play -- if you’re into RISK, Stratego, and X’s and O’s -- was the aggressive posture reserve safety Ryan Mundy took towards a potential run. Mundy sprinted up into the front line, almost as if in a run blitz, only to watch Thomas breeze right by. That left the young receiver alone and in perfect position to catch a slant on Ike Taylor. It looked as though the Pittsburgh corner got caught snoozing, as Thomas had space and position on the veteran corner.

Best Player on the Field: Say what you will, but Tebow was the deciding factor in this game. Yes, he threw for 316 yards and the game-winning ball to Thomas. But don’t forget some key runs. Timsanity stayed on the ground 10 times for 50 yards, with three of those rumbles going for first downs and another for a touchdown. The guy did it all.

Why this Game is No. 6: When you think about last football season, how long does it take before Tebowmania enters your mind? How long after that does the Demaryius Thomas catch-and-haul-butt follow suit? Make no mistake, Steelers-Broncos was one of the events of the 2011 season. Outside of Tebow’s clutch performance, there were plenty of big plays from both teams on both sides of the ball, as well as some controversial officiating. All that said, Tebow made a case for being a typical quarterback, not the atypical quarterback, torching the NFL’s top -ranked defense for 300 yards and a W. That storyline really gave this game some punch.

Why not Higher? Because our top five kicks butt, that’s why.

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