Remember that time the Detroit Lions almost ended Tebow Mania?

Detroit Lions. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Detroit Lions. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /

Making the second start of his magical 2011 season, Tim Tebow and the Broncos were steamrolled by a mean and motivated Detroit Lions defense.

By any standard, 2011 was an unusual season in the NFL. The Giants upset the Patriots in the Super Bowl again. The concussion crisis was starting to heat up, with rule changes made for player safety and to prevent the growing public backlash. The Lions had their best team in over a decade, even making the cover of Sports Illustrated in early October.

Meanwhile, all of those stories took a backseat to the short-lived phenomenon of Tim Tebow. Before he became a minor league baseball player, Tebow’s polarizing presence and inexplicable endgame heroics basically high-jacked the 2011 NFL season.

A minor footnote of the Tebow Time narrative was the mid-season clash between the Lions and Broncos. After his dreadful performance against a mean and motivated Lions defense right before Halloween, it seemed doubtful that Tebow would be dressing up as a starting quarterback in the NFL for much longer.

By exposing the Heisman winner in this 45-10 demolition, the Lions nearly put the brakes on Tebow Mania before it was able to really pick up steam.

The Lead Up

The Lions started the season 5-0, and Matthew Stafford was finally taking over as the franchise QB. The Broncos started the season 1-4, and Kyle Orton was out as the starter. Tebow leapfrogged Brady Quinn on the depth chart and took over behind center for Denver.

Stafford led the Lions back from 20-0 and 27-3 second half deficits in consecutive weeks. Tebow almost finished an improbable comeback coming off the bench against the Chargers. In his first start of the season, Tebow led the Broncos back from a 15-0 deficit late in the 4th quarter to beat Miami in overtime. Following that game, social media reinvented the act of genuflection and renamed it ‘Tebowing‘.

Love Tebow or hate him, Broncos games suddenly had a very high entertainment value. After their feel-good 5-0 start, the general public quickly flipped from loving the Lions to hating them. Led by Ndamukong Suh, the defense was steadily earning a reputation for dirty play.

By the time the teams met in late October, Tebow was already becoming the most talked about player in the league. This apparently didn’t sit well with the Lions, and they made it their mission to derail the Tebow hype machine.

“That’s your quarterback?”

From start to finish, this one looked personal. The Lions didn’t go out to the mountains to beat the Broncos. They went out west specifically to beat Tebow. It was reminiscent of the time that a jealous Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen ganged up on Toni Kukoc in the ’92 Olympics. The end result was an absolute beat-down.

After spotting the Broncos an early field goal, the Lions ripped off 45 unanswered points in just over three quarters. Detroit actually scored more points with Tebow on the field than the Broncos did. Tebow completed only 8 of his first 25 passes. The Broncos started the game 0 for 10 on third down. That’s not all.

The defense sacked Tebow seven times on the afternoon. Cliff Avril ripped a fumble away from him and took it for a touchdown. Chris Houston returned an overthrown Tebow pass 100 yards for another touchdown.  The Lions finally took their foot off the gas for the final 12 minutes of the game, allowing a late Broncos touchdown and helping Tebow save face a little bit in the stats department.

And yes, the Lions probably overdid it a little bit in the Tebow mockery department.

Stephen Tulloch did the Tebowing pose following a first quarter sack. Tight end Tony Scheffler did a half-Tebow after a 1 yard touchdown catch. In the locker room following the game, one unnamed defender let loose in his critique of Tebow’s play. “Can you believe 15?…we were like, ‘come on-that’s your quarterback? Seriously?'”

With an avalanche of criticism unleashed on Tebow the next day, it was very much uncertain whether he’d see the field again in 2011. In the end, he got one more chance, and the season only got weirder from there.


Tebow started the next week, and pulled off a comeback victory. And then another one. And another one. So on and so forth, the improbable victories piled up as the Tebow Mania craze took off. After two months as Denver’s starter, Tebow had a 7-1 record, including five 4th quarter comebacks. The only blemish on his record was his rough game against the Lions.

Matt Prater was essentially a ghostwriting co-author of Tebow Time, with a handful of ridiculously clutch kicks. Five years later, he played a similar role for the overachieving 2016 Lions team.

As for the Lions, they had a few more late game heroics of their own in 2011. They rallied from 17 down to beat the Panthers right before Thanksgiving, and 13 down to stun Oakland and pick up their 9th win of the year.

Both teams made it to the playoffs, the Lions as a 10-6 Wild Card, and the Broncos as AFC East “champions”, winning a three-way tie at 8-8. The Lions fell to New Orleans, and Tebow had one more piece of magic in the first round game at Pittsburgh.

The good times were short lived for both parties. I’m not sure whether the Lions or Tebow had a worse 2012 off-season. The Lions had seemingly their entire 2010 draft class get arrested multiple times that summer. Tebow on the other hand, was finished as a Denver Bronco, summarized perfectly in this incredible Steve Breen cartoon.

Next: Detroit Lions: 15 best first-round draft picks of all-time

During the 2011 NFL season, I happened to be living in Colorado, 90 minutes west of Denver. Like it or not, I’ll always remember it as the year of Tebow. However, thanks to their performance at Mile High right before Halloween, I’ll also fondly remember that Lions team as the ones who very nearly prevented Tebow Mania.