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Patriots-Broncos Preview

AP - Sports

With every passing week - each containing a victory seemingly more unlikely than the last - Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos continue to silence skeptics and gain new believers under a growing national spotlight.

Beating Tom Brady and Bill Belichick would take Tebow-mania to a whole new level.

The New England Patriots have long struggled in Denver, and they'll find a unique challenge there Sunday as they seek to end the Broncos' stunning six-game winning streak and wrap up their ninth AFC East title in 11 seasons.

Even before the AFC West-leading Broncos' latest comeback victory, there was such anticipation for this showdown that TV networks were fighting over the game. NBC wanted it moved to prime time, but CBS managed to keep it in a late-afternoon slot.

The attention is largely because Tebow's unorthodox style, penchant for dramatic rallies and public declarations of his Christian faith have prompted innumerable opinions about him - even beyond the sports world.

"He's great for the NFL, the kind of young man he is and the values he represents," Patriots owner Robert Kraft said. "I think it's terrific. We just want to bring him down to earth this weekend.

"I hope we can sort of rain on the parade a little bit."

Chicago looked like it would last Sunday, holding a 10-0 lead when it punted to the Broncos with 4:34 remaining in regulation. At that point, Denver's offense had appeared all but hopeless in the second half, totaling two first downs on its first six possessions after the break.

Tebow, however, guided the Broncos (8-5) down the field and found Demaryius Thomas for a touchdown with 2:08 left. Denver failed to recover the onside kick and likely would have lost if Chicago's Marion Barber hadn't stopped the clock by running out of bounds, but the Broncos got the ball back and would tie the game on a 59-yard field goal by Matt Prater.

Tebow completed three passes to help set up that kick and did the same in overtime - after Barber fumbled - before Prater hit a 51-yarder to seal Denver's 13-10 win.

"If you believe," Tebow said, "then unbelievable things can sometimes be possible."

Unlikely things have happened frequently during the Broncos' winning streak. Their last four victories - two in overtime - have each come after they trailed in the last two minutes of the fourth quarter.

Tebow - 7-1 as the starter this season - often has been ineffective for much of the game, only to engineer tying or winning drives with the pressure on.

"I don't know if they just kind of wait until they think, 'Oh, man, we might lose this game,' and start playing," coach John Fox said. "It's aging me quickly."

While Tebow continues to get the bulk of the attention, the Broncos' defense - sparked by star rookie Von Miller's 11 1/2 sacks - also has been hugely responsible for the turnaround from a 1-4 start.

"You have to give credit to how well the team's doing as opposed to one guy," Patriots linebacker Dane Fletcher said of the Broncos, "because they're all stepping up."

Prater has delivered a number of clutch kicks, something he also did against New England in 2009. The Patriots led 17-7 at halftime in these teams' most recent meeting, but Kyle Orton rallied the Broncos to a 20-17 win - capped by Prater's 41-yard field goal in OT.

That dropped New England to 2-15 at Denver since 1969, including a pair of postseason defeats.

Brady is 1-6 against the Broncos overall, but he's propelled the Patriots (10-3) to five straight wins despite the NFL's worst overall defense. The team needs one more victory or a loss by the New York Jets to secure another division title, and it's still a strong contender for the AFC's No. 1 seed.

In last weekend's 34-27 win at Washington, Brady threw for 357 yards and three touchdowns - two to star tight end Rob Gronkowski, who has found the end zone 16 times.

Brady also threw his first interception in five games, setting up a chance for the Redskins to tie, but Jerod Mayo intercepted Rex Grossman's pass inside the Patriots' 10-yard line to seal the win.

New England's patchwork defense, which continues to give wide receivers Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater time at safety, allowed more than 430 yards for the third straight week before its AFC-high 18th interception - sixth in the red zone - stopped Washington.

"You kind of don't want to give up those yards in the first place," safety James Ihedigbo said. "But at the same time, we're going to bow our necks once we get down there, and say, 'Hey, they're not getting in the end zone.'"

One of Tebow's best qualities this year has been his ability to avoid turnovers. He's thrown two interceptions in 198 pass attempts, compared to 11 TD passes.

The Broncos rely more heavily on the NFL's most productive rushing offense, averaging 156.2 yards - many on Tebow's 94 carries. Willis McGahee is 80 shy of his first 1,000-yard rushing season since 2007.

New England has been better against the run than the pass, but it was gouged for a season-worst 170 yards on the ground by the Redskins.

"(The Broncos' running game) definitely has a Wildcat option element to it, no question about it," Belichick said. "But they also run a lot of plays that I think we would say are conventional plays. ... They do both and that's part of the problem; you don't know when you're going to get one thing or get another."

Denver can't win its division this week but could move to the brink of clinching with a win and an Oakland loss to Detroit.

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