American Football: Broncos have prayers answered by Tebow
If it ever went away, Tebow-mania is back. For much of the NFL regular season, Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow made himself a national cult figure -- hurling winning, last-minute touchdown passes and then kneeling on the touchline to give thanks to the Almighty for his deliverance, in a gesture that spawned its own word, 'tebowing'.
But in the last few games the magic had deserted him, and the Broncos barely made the play-offs. Tebow had a lousy throwing technique, poor field vision and had just got lucky, the critics said.
There was even talk of replacing him by an untried back-up if he continued to struggle against the formidable Pittsburgh Steelers in Sunday's AFC wildcard round. No one need have worried.
First Tebow threw for an impressive 316 yards against one of the NFL's toughest defences, never being sacked and without throwing an interception.
The Steelers (12-5) lost despite Ben Roethlisberger rallying injury-depleted Pittsburgh from a two-touchdown half-time deficit with 10 points in the final 10 minutes. The 2011 Super Bowl losers managed to tie the game 23-23, but it was not Tebow's fault. And then, as overtime began, he produced his biggest miracle yet.
With the very first play of the extra period, he connected with a 20-yard pass to receiver Demaryius Thomas. That seemed to be that -- until Thomas raced away from the Steelers defence and scored an 80-yard touchdown.
Game over, a sensational upset 29-23 win for the Broncos, and there was Tebow in his now familiar pose, dropping to his knees in prayer.
"First of all, Thank you Lord," was how he described to reporters his initial thought as he watched Thomas take off for the Pittsburgh endzone.
The whole play took just 11 seconds of overtime, making it the quickest ending to an extra period in NFL history.
Across the land, a new outbreak was reported of tebowing, defined by the website tebowing.com as "to get down on a knee and start praying, even if everyone else around you is doing something completely different."
Even Lady Gaga was amazed. "Tebow, That's what the f*** a champion looks like," the flamboyant pop diva tweeted on Sunday evening to her 17m followers.
The overtime win drew the best preliminary TV rating for a National Football League wild-card play-off game in 24 years. Denver fans, meanwhile, are already dreaming of another Super Bowl run, 13 years after the Broncos' back-to-back championships in 1998 and '99.
The road will be tough. In the next round the Broncos meet the New England Patriots, AFC title favourites, who routed them in the regular season.
If they do make it to Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis on February 5, Denver's most likely opponents will be either Green Bay or New Orleans, generally rated the two best teams in the entire NFL. With Tim Tebow, however, anything is possible.
Saturday (NFC): New Orleans Saints at San Francisco 49ers. (AFC): Denver Broncos at New England Patriots
Sunday (AFC): Houston Texans at Baltimore Ravens. (NFC): New York Giants at Green Bay Packers
January 22: Conference Championships
February 5: Super Bowl