Burdened by obvious deficiencies in his game, Tebow has struggled with accuracy, recognition of defenses and rhythm for much of his time under center, yet he has demonstrated enhanced focus and aptitude in clutch situations. His teammates seem to elevate their performances accordingly, while opposing players succumb to the stress. This was glaringly true in last Sunday's overtime victory over the Chicago Bears, Tebow's sixth comeback triumph of his young career, as Matt Prater's game-tying, 59-yard field goal was only made possible by Marion Barber's unconscionable brainlock.
Tebow has won seven of his eight games as a starter, and the Broncos (8-5) appear headed for a stunning AFC West title. And as Denver prepares for Sunday's Mile High showdown with the AFC East-leading New England Patriots (10-3), the football world has lost its collective mind.
[ Playoff picture: Current AFC/NFC playoff seeds ]
Ask yourself this question: How crazy is it that, in the eyes of so many observers, Tom Brady is the quarterback in this matchup who isn't touched by God? Depending upon your perspective, Tebow's success is either the product of one player's intangible brilliance, the overshadowed efforts of his teammates and coaches, blind luck or the power of faith – or some combination thereof – unless, of course, you are Tebow's pastor, Wayne Hanson, who attributes the quarterback's success to "God's favor." It's a belief that is shared by at least one opposing player, Miami Dolphins linebacker Karlos Dansby and, if Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard is interpreting the situation correctly, by Tebow himself.
I'm going to spare you the lecture about how patronizing, simplistic, indulgent, irrational and offensive that line of thinking is to a large segment of the population and simply note that by any measure, Tebow's faith is impressive and not insignificant. His ability to block out the reproach of others and the self-doubt that often keeps a player from focusing – and the way that hyper-focus and confidence clearly rubs off on those around him – is a tremendous quality that should not be underestimated.
Yet I've been watching Brady for more than a decade, and other than running the football and publicly proclaiming his religious beliefs, I can't think of a single area in which he is inferior to Tebow. And while all of this should be alarmingly apparent to anyone who's been paying attention, I feel compelled to cut through the Tebow mania and issue some reminders.
Brady has every intangible known to man working in his favor. He is an exceptionally hard worker, an exacting leader and a model teammate. He is cool in the pocket and under pressure, and he's at his best when the stakes are highest.
He has immense faith in his own abilities, and his teammates willingly follow and attempt to play up to his standard. As great as Brady is, he does not act imperial, and as a result no one resents his success. Even on those rare occasions on which he reveals his rough edges, he has a knack for hitting the right notes, as we saw last Sunday after he took the blame for his sideline spat with offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien.
One critical difference between Tebow and Brady: The Patriots' quarterback was handed nothing. We hear all the time about Tebow's work ethic and drive to disprove the doubters, but the bottom line is that after one of the greatest careers in college football history, he was a first-round draft pick with an implicit shot of becoming the Broncos' quarterback of the future.
Brady had a fine career at Michigan, but when he arrived in Ann Arbor he was seventh on the depth chart. Even after winning the starting job and having a standout junior season, Brady was forced to split time with Drew Henson as a senior. The Patriots drafted him in the sixth round and he literally spent his rookie season as the team's fourth-string quarterback.
The following year, he took over as the Pats' starter when Drew Bledsoe went out with an injury, and teammates were blown away by Brady's seemingly unjustified confidence. Check out this quote from then-Pats quarterback Damon Huard in 2002, a couple of months after Brady won the first of three Super Bowl championships: "He believes he can do anything. In the huddle that faith he has in himself rubs off on everybody."
Hmmmm … does that sound like any current second-year quarterback who was thrust into the lineup and is now enjoying unlikely success?
Since the world didn't begin eight weeks ago – though there's a tendency among many in our current culture to act as though it did – I also feel obligated to point out that Tebow is not the only passer who has ever summoned outrageously improbable comebacks on a startlingly frequent basis. Johnny Unitas had that magic, as did Joe Montana, perhaps more than anyone in history. So, too, did John Elway, the Broncos' executive vice president of football operations whose every facial expression during Tebow's triumphs is analyzed and assigned overarching significance. And Brady, with 32 career game-winning drives to overcome fourth-quarter ties or deficits, has also pulled off some remarkable feats – some of which seemed as though they'd been facilitated by a higher power.
Remember the Snow Bowl in January of 2002, when Brady, in white-capped Foxboro Stadium, led the Patriots to an overtime triumph over the Oakland Raiders? The Pats' season looked over when Brady was hit by former college teammate Charles Woodson on a blindside blitz and fumbled away the football, but an obscure loophole known as the Tuck Rule – to his utter surprise, by the way – gave New England the ball back on replay review. Brady then put the Pats in position to tie the game on Adam Vinatieri's 45-yard field goal into the driving snow between barely visible goal posts on a sloshy field. With all due respect to Prater, that was the greatest field goal in NFL history.
Two weeks later I saw Brady, seven days removed from a seemingly severe ankle sprain, stun Kurt Warner and the Greatest Show on Turf in Super Bowl XXXVI. After a pedestrian game, Brady was stone-cold brilliant on the final drive, and the Pats pulled off one of the great upsets in title-game history on Vinatieri's last-second field goal.
In January of 2005 I watched Brady light up the league's best defense in the AFC championship game in frigid Pittsburgh, then got a tip at halftime that he'd spent the previous night in bed with an IV in his arm and had woken up on game day with a 103-degree temperature. He had zero desire to talk about his illness as I followed him to the bus after the Pats' 41-27 victory, but make no mistake: this was Michael Jordan with the flu in Utah, Part II.
Then there was the divisional playoff clash in San Diego two years later when Brady, against a loaded, top-seeded Chargers team that had gone 14-2 in the regular season, threw his third interception of the game and appeared to be out of miracles. Then, in a surreal instant, one happened: Patriots wideout Troy Brown went over the back of San Diego safety Marlon McCree to dislodge the ball after the pick, and New England's Reche Caldwell recovered, giving Brady another shot. As usual, he delivered.
Divine intervention? A leader who inspired teammates never to quit and was summarily rewarded? A guy who just seems to get all the breaks?
Draw your own conclusions; here are mine: Brady has been very, very blessed, and he has displayed an extreme degree of dedication toward continually improving as a player and a person. On both fronts, it has been a pleasure to watch him grow.
Brady has a tight-knit, loving family and circle of friends, all of whom view him as a caring, unpretentious and genuine soul. That he happens to be married to a supermodel who reportedly makes more money than he does and has been called the world's most beautiful woman is the source of much public fascination, but at his core Brady is a young father and husband who values two things above all others: said family and friends, and excelling at his craft, pure and simple.
He is not perfect, but he is relentlessly motivated and seldom satisfied, and for those reasons most NFL players are at peace with his success. One prominent veteran for another AFC team told me a few weeks ago that he couldn't wait until Tebow played Brady, "because I want to see how the kid responds when he's down by 28 points, against a truly great quarterback, and all that gimmicky option stuff and that keep-it-close philosophy won't work. And a lot of us around the league will be rooting for Brady – that's just the way it is."
There are plenty of detractors out there who aren't so smitten with the two-time MVP. Some call him a cheater, dubiously associating him with the Spygate scandal for which Pats coach Bill Belichick was responsible; others have the audacity to label him a sinner, because he had a child out of wedlock. And I'm pretty sure some of Tebow's devotees will frame Sunday's matchup as another good-vs.-evil clash that their young hero is destined to win.
[ Related: Debunking the myths of Tim Tebow ]
I can't tell you what is absolute truth, or how you should filter your faith through the football you watch, but I do have some very clear convictions when it comes to this particular athletic endeavor. If you think Tebow has some sort of holy advantage, you may be in for a rude awakening. Brady, as he was informed by reporters earlier this week, has a winning record against 30 of the NFL's other 31 teams. The Broncos are the lone exception – he's 1-5 against Denver, including a playoff defeat. Gee, think he might be a tad dialed in for this one?
Football, of course, is not an individual sport, and there are plenty of elements outside of Brady's control. Statistically, the Patriots have the league's worst defense, and they've been relying on their quarterback to play at a regal level to maintain their status as an elite team. That puts a lot of pressure on Brady, and it seems to set up another potential scenario in which things might magically go Tebow's way.
Perhaps, as some insist, Sunday's script has already been written. I'm not buying that for a second. I think the visiting quarterback will have something to say about the outcome, and that he'll do so with resounding force and impunity. And, if necessary, he'll summon a bit of magic – somehow, someway – and walk off a winner, and move on to the next challenge.
Personally, I don't believe that "God's favor" extends to the outcome of sporting events or to the validation of one man's faith over another's. But I must concede that there are times when I'm watching a football game and, like many others, I develop an eerie sense of inevitability about the outcome. When one leader's focus is so sharp and unassailable that an entire team is galvanized, that collective force is very, very hard to vanquish. To that end, I'm learning to appreciate the Tebow phenomenon.
As for the other guy? I believe in Brady.
TAKE IT TO THE ATM
Todd Bowles will own a perfect record as an NFL head coach, at least temporarily, after the Dolphins defeat the fading Bills in Buffalo. … The Raiders will snap out of their funk Sunday afternoon and outmuscle the Lions in a narrow home victory. … The Ravens will have full control of the AFC North after they outlast the Chargers on Sunday night and the 49ers prevail over the Steelers 24 hours later.
And remember, you can find all of my picks here – and receive the analysis behind them by registering for the Silver Insider at ridewithsilver.com. Meanwhile, Jason Cole and I continue our spirited battle for Locks of the Week supremacy while trying to goad former All-Pro halfback Eddie George into picking the winless Colts to defeat his former team.
PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …
LIES, LIES, LIES
1. If the Colts go 1-15, it will be indisputable evidence that Jim Caldwell is the right coach for the team – however, if Indy goes 0-16, he's surely unqualified to keep his job.
3. Variety reported that director Paul Thomas Anderson attended Thursday night's game between the Jaguars and Falcons at the Georgia Dome to approach owners Shahid Khan and Arthur Blank about appearing in a sequel to his 1997 film "Boogie Nights".
FANTASY ANNOYANCE OF THE WEEK
Sitting in the Cowboys Stadium press box last Sunday night with six minutes remaining in the game between Dallas and the New York Giants, I got a text from Cal women's basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb: "We r up by 1. Giants need to not score anymore, and the boys need to not throw to dez." It was good to be alive: Going into Bringin' It Back's playoff matchup with The Romo Empire, led not by Cowboys quarterback Tony but by Aaron Rodgers, Gottlieb and I knew we faced some long odds – and the monster performance of Empire's Rob Gronkowski on Sunday afternoon made the challenge even more daunting. However, just as Gottlieb had predicted, our players stepped up, with Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Shonn Greene coming through with big games and Jimmy Graham fighting through back spasms to contribute. Now we were trying to hang on, with only Cowboys wideout Dez Bryant and Giants kicker Shayne Graham between us and a trip to the semifinals. A few seconds after I read Gottlieb's text, I saw Romo drop back as Bryant raced toward the corner of the field in which I was stationed up above. The receiver was wide open. Don't throw it, I thought. Romo did, and Bryant caught it for a 50-yard touchdown, a dose of harsh reality for Gottlieb's fantasy dreams. "Hey, if you would have told me from the beginning of the day that we were still going to be in it that late into the Sunday night game, I'd have been thrilled," Gottlieb said later. "If you're gonna go out, you want to go out with that kind of effort – leave it all on the field. I wish we wouldn't have played Plaxico [Burress] this week; he had zero points. But, really, no regrets." We did, however, come up with a resolution for next year's draft: NO MORE JETS!
THIS WEEK'S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE
As for the championship that Gottlieb really craves, the first-year Cal coach is hoping to push the young Bears a step further in their development with a strong performance against undefeated, 12th-ranked Ohio State at Haas Pavilion Saturday afternoon. The Buckeyes boast a pair of national player of the year candidates in Tayler Hill and Samantha Prahalis, while the deep and talented Bears (8-2) have a loaded freshman class that includes point guard Brittany Boyd and posts Reshanda Gray and Justine Hartman. I plan to take it all in from a fabulous vantage point, though I have no plans to enter the annual Ugly Sweater contest (at least, not intentionally).
In other news, four swimmers with Cal ties will represent the U.S. in this weekend's Duel In The Pool in Atlanta: The great Natalie Coughlin (11 Olympic races, 11 medals, one awesome book) and fellow alum Dana Vollmer, hero of the Bears' 2009 NCAA title run; junior Caitlin Leverenz, one of the stars of Cal's 2011 NCAA title run; and incoming recruit Elizabeth Pelton, the American record holder in the 200-yard backstroke. Yeah, Cal coach Teri McKeever keeps reloading, and more glory is imminent.
Oh, and two UC Berkeley astronomers recently discovered the two biggest black holes known to exist – even bigger than the Supermassive Black Hole who currently plays defensive tackle for the Tampa Bay Bucs.
LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK
A left-handed legend with an inexplicable gift, a unique performer apparently tapped into a higher power – yeah, Jimi Hendrix was a peerless phenomenon. Who better to use as a conduit for what's going down in Denver, and specifically the amazing coaching job being done by the man John Elway hired after taking charge of the Broncos' football operations last winter? Here's Elway doing Jimi, to the tune of (you guessed it) "Foxy Lady", complete with guitar licks that could only be the creation of a supreme being.
You know you're a helluva game-planner
And you know you're a savant like Rain Man was
I wanna hug you bro, yeah
With my golden right arm, yo
You've got us 8 and 5, no jive
Ooh, Foxy baby
Now McDaniels, heh, was wrecking my team Foxy
He made me wanna get up and uh scream Foxy
Ah, things were looking down
I made up my mind
And nine months later it was Tebow Time
Extension must be signed, dotted line
You're the one
I wanna hug you bro
With my golden right arm, yo
You've got us 8 and 5, no jive
Here I come baby
Comin' to extend ya
You coach so good
Oh yeah, Foxy
Yeah, coach 'em up
Yeah, grind it out
You make me feel like
Feel like sayin' Foxy
Foxy baby …
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