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Unlike other Broncos thrillers, wild-card win defined by Tebow

DENVER -- He reached for the chain with the silver cross that was dangling in his locker and slipped it over his bowed head, one final touch as Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow finished getting dressed Sunday night.

It hadn't been 25 minutes since the end, since a stadium erupted in a way that might still be echoing through the nearby Rocky Mountains. It was barely enough time to shower, let alone digest the historical value of this thrilling 29-23 overtime wild-card win over the Steelers.

"So where do we rank this one?" I asked.

"That one goes pretty high," Tebow said.

No, Tim, not pretty high. Mile high. All the way to the top, to a place where few sports moments live, above each of the previous seven wins that put us in these seats in the first place.

In the face of his biggest doubts yet, as a nation began to accept the possibility that his legacy would be contained to a 7-1 stretch during the 2011 regular season, Tebow dismantled the best defense in the NFL with accurate passes. With deep passes. With -- wait for it -- good passes.

This was Tebow Time like we'd never seen it before.

"We haven't seen that out of him on the tapes that we watched," Steelers linebacker James Farrior said.

To absorb the enormity of this experience, you'll need to rewind six days to the morning following Tebow's dismal passing effort in a 7-3 loss to the Chiefs. He'd completed 6 of 22 passes for 60 yards, an effort that created some very tense, nervous discussions within the organization.

Team sources said the Broncos at one point Monday considered getting backup Brady Quinn more involved in the game plan. They explored several possibilities, including using him in more passing situations, but ultimately backed off. They instead decided it was best to let Tebow prepare as usual.

Quinn wouldn't wind up taking any extra repetitions in practice, and coaches never discussed the possibility with him. But several people within the organization said Tebow could sense the importance of this moment -- not just because it was a playoff game but because his career was in the balance.

"You just saw it as he walked around," cornerback Andre' Goodman said. "He knew how big this moment was -- and I think he was looking forward to changing people's opinion about him."

As the week continued, Broncos executive vice president John Elway made his own advice for Tebow publicly known, encouraging the quarterback to "put everything behind him" and "pull the trigger."

Did you see what Tebow did Sunday -- and the way that he did it? We're not just talking about that memorable overtime moment when a perfect strike hit Demaryius Thomas in stride for the game-winning touchdown.

No, we're talking about much earlier than that.

Before Sunday, Tebow averaged just 11.18 passing yards in the second quarter. He'd combined for a total of just 123 second-quarter passing yards during his 11 starts. Against the Steelers, he more than doubled the total, throwing one big completion after another, for 185 yards and a 20-6 halftime lead.

"I just tried to go out there and play hard, play fast and be aggressive," Tebow said.

In other words, he just went out there and pulled the trigger.

During the biggest moment of his NFL career, Tebow came through in the clutch like few quarterbacks have ever done. He threw for 316 yards and two touchdowns, all while losing one of his favorite targets, wide receiver Eric Decker, to a significant knee injury.

This game wasn't defined by a Marion Barber fumble. It wasn't about a Gator Day in South Florida. Or a Broncos defense carrying the whole load. Or a Matt Prater field goal from far away. This win was defined by Tebow, who decided he wasn't ready for this wild ride to end just yet.

So where does this win rank in a short career full of jaw-dropping finishes? Given the context of the previous three losses, given the ability of the opponent, given the importance of the moment, it goes straight to the top.

Unless, of course, he decides to do it again next week.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington

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