DENVER – The house of worship shook with the sounds of ecstasy and expectation, a harmonious howl of 76,556 believers roaring in unison for their weekly miracle.
Tim Tebow had just bulled into the end zone for the Denver Broncos, cutting the visiting New England Patriots' lead to 11 points with 8:41 left in Sunday's game at Sports Authority Field, and just about everyone in the joint was a mile high.
One notable exception: The quarterback who stood stoically on the sideline, single-minded in his purpose and completely at peace with the plan.
Yep, Tom Brady was preparing to march the Patriots 80 yards for a game-clinching touchdown and choke the life out of Tebow Time, and you'd best believe the three-time Super Bowl champion wasn't stressed out for a second.
Not long after New England's 41-23 victory over the Broncos, a triumph which clinched the AFC East title for the Pats (11-3) and put them on track for a first-round playoff bye, I entered the visitors' locker room and encountered Brady as he headed for the showers. Securing a white towel around his waist with his right hand and holding a shaving kit with his left, the future Hall of Famer stopped cold when I asked if he'd sensed, after Tebow's late touchdown, that the game might be slipping away.
"I've been in a lot of big games, Mikey," he said, looking me directly in the eye. "Games a lot bigger than this."
Tebow mania, meet Brady Brass, and kindly kneel down and kiss the ring. On a crazy NFL Sunday that saw the 13-0 Green Bay Packers lose, the 0-13 Indianapolis Colts win and a whole lot of playoff contenders absorb unlikely gut-punches, the most clutch quarterback of his era reminded everyone why he's still The One.
Say it with me, football fans. Tom Brady: All he does is win.
In a flawless, ruthless performance, Brady – facing the only NFL team against which he doesn't own a winning record – completed 23 of 34 passes for 320 yards and two touchdowns. He also scored his first rushing TD in more than a year and, as with last November's Heinz Field end-zone trip in a victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, stood up and spiked the football as though he were trying to blast a hole in the grass and send the pigskin to China.
Yet it was a subsequent show of defiance by Brady – following a torso-rattling sack by Broncos linebacker Elvis Dumervil with 12:30 remaining – that captivated his biggest benefactor and fan.
"Did you see how he got right up after that hit, like it didn't bother him at all?" Pats owner Robert Kraft asked in the final stages of Sunday's game as he stood behind the south end zone. "That was classic. We're so lucky to have him."
Others might call the Patriots blessed, a term of which Tebow undoubtedly would approve: After one of the more impressive efforts of his young career, the Broncos' second-year quarterback began his postgame news conference, as is his custom, by saying, "Well, first and foremost I have to thank my lord and savior, Jesus Christ."
So yes, religion was an unmistakable subtext to this game. Yet if there was a notion, espoused by some Tebow devotees during the Broncos' season-turning six-game winning streak, that his opponents are being vanquished as part of some divine intervention, Brady wasn't buying it. He played Sunday as though he were determined to take fate and fortune out of the equation.
After all, as I noted last Friday, Tebow was not the only quarterback in this game whose past performances have inspired fervent faith among his teammates.
And as comedian Jason Sudeikis concluded in a "Saturday Night Live" skit on the eve of the game, Brady, a former guest host of the program, does have a penchant for working miracles on the football field.
Sunday's victory over the Broncos (8-6), who retained a one-game lead in the AFC West with two to play, didn't quite rise to that standard. However, it can be argued that winning a sixth consecutive game to ascend to the top of the AFC standings (pending the 10-3 Steelers' showdown with the 10-3 Niners in San Francisco on Monday night) with the league's worst statistical defense is an awe-inspiring feat.
[ Playoff picture: Current AFC/NFC playoff seeds ]
When Patriots coach Bill Belichick, after winning the pregame coin toss, deferred and allowed the Broncos to receive the opening kickoff, one wondered if he were trying to make some sort of statement. If so, the message turned out to be: We couldn't stop a bunch of pacifist college protesters with an industrial-sized can of pepper spray.
The Broncos opened the game by driving 80 yards in nine plays, taking a 6-0 lead when Tebow escaped the grasp of linebacker Rob Ninkovich in the backfield and traversed his way through several defenders for a nine-yard score. Denver botched the extra point on a bad snap, and Brady put the Pats ahead five plays later, finding a wide-open Chad Ochocinco down the left sideline for a 33-yard touchdown. It was Ochocinco's first end-zone jaunt as a member of the Patriots, and he resisted the urge to celebrate, saying later, "No big thing. It was cool."
Denver's next drive was bookended by Willis McGahee's 29-yard burst and fellow halfback Lance Ball's 32-yard touchdown ramble, which tells you all you need to know. By the end of the first quarter, which ended with the Broncos in the red zone and closing in on the Matt Prater field goal that would put them up 16-7, the Patriots were being outrushed 167 yards to four. That was the most yards on the ground the Pats had given up in a single quarter since Belichick became their coach before the 2000 season.
The overtones were ominous, but Brady and his teammates overcame. First he led the Pats on another scoring drive, hitting tight end Aaron Hernandez (nine catches, 129 yards) with a one-yard touchdown pass, two plays after the quarterback's pinpoint spiral was cradled by a diving Wes Welker.
Then it was time for the defense to do its part. On Denver's next play from scrimmage, defensive tackle Ron Brace dislodged the ball from Ball and Ninkovich recovered at the 19-yard line, setting up Stephen Gostkowski's 21-yard field goal to give New England a 17-16 lead.
Three plays later Tebow started up the middle and was met by Carter's replacement, defensive end Mark Anderson, who forced a fumble and recovered at the Broncos' 40. New England converted on Brady's one-yard sneak with 1:17 remaining and, after punting with 14 seconds to go, the Pats got a gift field goal for a 27-16 halftime lead when Quan Cosby muffed the return and New England's Dane Fletcher recovered.
[ Winners/losers: Don't write off Tim Tebow just yet ]
That 3-to-0 takeaway advantage, which would hold up through the end of the game, put Brady in a very good state of mind.
"It was awesome," he said nearly an hour after the game. "There's no step that correlates to winning more than turnovers. I'm not a big stat guy, but if you can win the turnover battle, it's a very good thing."
How good? When the Pats have fewer turnovers than their opponents since Brady took over as the starter in 2001, they are 101-4.
Still, defeat at least seemed plausible when Tebow scored his second rushing touchdown to pull the Broncos within 34-23 with 8:41 to go. Though he would suffer only his second setback in nine starts, and his first since a disastrous late-October outing against the Lions, Tebow did not play poorly in this game – at all. He seemed to throw downfield with renewed authority, completing 11 of 22 passes for 194 yards without an interception, and he gained another 93 yards on 12 rushing attempts.
With the crowd chanting his name, he was as eager as anyone for the Broncos to get a stop as Brady jogged back onto the field following a touchback. If the quarterback was unfazed by the raucous atmosphere, his owner was equally confident.
"We've got Tom Brady," Kraft said. "Of course I wasn't [worried]. I think he's the best quarterback ever to play the game."
He couldn't have been much better on the drive that clinched Sunday's victory. The clinic commenced with a four-yard Stevan Ridley run, followed by Brady's short flip over the middle to tight end Rob Gronkowski, who showed some terrific open-field skills en route to a 38-yard gain. Two plays later Brady found Hernandez on a 16-yard crossing route. Another short pass that Hernandez turned into a 26-yard completion set up BenJarvus Green-Ellis' dagger of a touchdown. Three throws, three completions, 76 yards – thanks for coming, y'all.
The exclamation point came with 2:17 remaining when Tebow, on fourth-and-17 from the Patriots' 37, dropped back in the pocket and twice spun around in an effort to evade defenders before Ninkovich drove him down for a 28-yard sack.
"Guys made great runs after the catch [Sunday]," Brady said. "The defense made plays, and we capitalized. People did their jobs. And the Jets lost. All in all, it was a good day for the Patriots."
Not surprisingly, nobody in the New England locker room wanted to talk much about Tebow. If Brady and his teammates wanted to prove some sort of point about quarterbacking supremacy, they concealed it like one of the 34-year-old's crafty play-fakes.
Kraft, whose Jewish faith has been a source of comfort as he mourns the passing of his wife, Myra, did express support for the opposing quarterback's religious convictions.
"I like this whole emphasis on spirituality with Tim Tebow," the Pats' owner said. "It's a great thing that people are talking about faith and values that are important – we need that in society."
Kraft paused and started toward the locker-room tunnel as the game's final seconds ticked away. Then he turned around, smiling, and added a final thought: "But I think we've got the best competitor in the game in Tom Brady. I'm so glad he's on our side."
Reggie Wayne, the Colts' five-time Pro Bowl receiver, checked in from an Indianapolis nightspot Sunday night, where he and some teammates were celebrating the team's first victory of a lost, Peyton Manning-less season. "It's all good," Wayne conveyed (via text) of Indy's 27-13 victory over the Tennessee Titans, which ensured that the 2008 Lions will remain the lone 0-16 team in NFL history. "I've been here before. I'm just happy for these rookies, man. It's their first time experiencing a win." Wayne did his part, catching an 18-yard touchdown pass from Dan Orlovsky to give the Colts a 10-6 lead early in the third quarter. He had just three receptions for 33 yards for the day, and his numbers have suffered drastically in Manning's absence – after catching 111 passes for 1,355 yards in 2010, Wayne has 59 catches for 781 through 14 games this year. Still, once he sensed the Colts could win, Wayne put aside his personal frustration and focused on ending the team's irksome run of imperfection. "I feel like it's going to be a good day every week," Wayne said. "But when the fourth quarter hit, and I looked at that scoreboard I was like, 'Oh [expletive], we've got a shot for real.' Even with limited catches, all of a sudden everything else was out the window. And the most important thing was in bold print: 'Win.' " And then, in what I regard as a welcome role reversal, Wayne dedicated a shot to yours truly. ¡Salud! … As for the Lions, three years removed from the worst season in league history and 12 years removed from their last postseason appearance, salvation is nearly here. Trailing the Raiders 27-14 with 7:47 remaining, quarterback Matthew Stafford led Detroit on a pair of touchdown drives – the latter spanning 98 yards – to pull out a 28-27 victory. Stafford's six-yard touchdown pass to Calvin Johnson provided the winning points, and All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh – back from a two-game suspension following his Thanksgiving Day stomping incident – clinched the game by blocking Sebastian Janikowski's 65-yard field goal attempt on the final play. "This team has a lot of resolve and character," said safety Chris Harris, who joined the Lions in late October after being released by the rival Bears. "That was one of the best comebacks I've been a part of. The 98-yard winning drive by Stafford was awesome. He is very special. I'm a believer. He was having a rough second half and to pull that off was very 'Brady-like.' " Enough said. … Hi, I'm Drew Brees – I just became the first quarterback in NFL history to complete 80-plus percent of my passes (32 of 40) for at least 400 yards (412) and five touchdowns with no interceptions in a game (the Saints' 42-20 blowout of the Vikings in Minneapolis). I'm 304 yards from breaking Dan Marino's single-season record with two games to play, and my team is 11-3. Oh, and I'm unsigned heading into next year, and negotiations on a long-term deal are stalled. You might want to consider paying me, like, NOW. Just a thought …
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. The death of manners (as least as it pertains to social media and cyberspace).
2. Anything about pro football, at least as it relates to the third-to-last Sunday of the season. Let's start with the fact that the quarterback Tebow replaced in Denver, Kyle Orton, made his first start for the Chiefs – in interim coach Romeo Crennel's first game since replacing the fired Todd Haley – and led Kansas City (6-8) to a 19-14 victory over Aaron Rodgers and the Pack. So much for a run at 19-0, though the Packers will certainly get over it if they can win a second consecutive Super Bowl. The Chiefs, meanwhile, are still mathematically alive, which is kind of crazy. Also surreal – Haley and his wife, Chrissy, watched the game from an Irish bar in Las Vegas, and the former coach took some pleasure in the outcome: "I'm happy for RAC [Crennel's nickname] and the players. They were fiercely loyal to the end." More weirdness: The Ravens, locked in a battle with the Steelers for the AFC North title and fighting for a first-round bye and home-field advantage, potentially blew all of it in San Diego on Sunday night, suffering a loathsome 34-14 defeat. What else? Next Sunday's Battle of New York (in New Jersey's MetLife Stadium, naturally) lost some sizzle when the Giants got flattened by the Redskins to fall behind the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC East and the Jets (8-6) suffered a 45-19 thrashing at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles to jeopardize their wild-card hopes. Oh, and the Texans (10-4) got taken down at home by the Carolina Panthers, though in retrospect I suppose a letdown was semi-predictable. So what does it all mean? Take nothing for granted these final two weekends, which is a big reason we all like watching this sport in the first place. Also, for those of you who like to assume starring roles in Overreaction Theater on Twitter, my advice is to take a tip from Sudeikis in the aforementioned SNL skit and take it down a notch. It's not a command; it's a request.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
I realize that I should probably be applauding the Chargers for their emphatic defeat of the Ravens and praising the Eagles for blowing out the Jets – both of these teams were in seemingly futile situations yet have refused to succumb quietly, a testament to respective head coaches Norv Turner and Andy Reid. However, while it's nice that San Diego (7-7) still has life after three consecutive victories and that Philly (6-8) kept the Dream alive with a second consecutive triumph, seeing the two teams play to their potential Sunday also ticked me off. Why? Because I want to shake players and coaches in both locker rooms (not literally – this isn't a steroid-laced diatribe) and scream, "WHAT THE HELL TOOK YOU SO LONG?" The Chargers are especially annoying, given that they essentially repeat this maddening pattern every year and often get away with it – though they didn't last year and will still need a bunch of help to sneak into the 2011 playoffs. If so, says veteran (and first-year San Diego) linebacker Takeo Spikes, "The league will be in trouble." He may be right – which just makes me even more frustrated. Ditto for the Eagles, my preseason Super Bowl pick, who believe it or not can win the NFC East if a) they defeat the Cowboys and Redskins; b) the Giants lose to the Jets next weekend; and c) the Giants beat the Cowboys in New Jersey on the final Sunday of the season. And if all of that happens? "It would be over," declares tight end Brent Celek, who had a career-high 156 receiving yards against the Jets, including a deft 26-yard touchdown catch of a Michael Vick pass. If nothing else Vick (15 for 22, 274 yards), in his second game back after having been sidelined the previous three games by broken ribs, is laying the foundation for a much more successful 2012 season. He reportedly has taken pain-killing injections to get back onto the field and, Celek says, "Mike has taken over as our leader. When guys got penalties he was all over them. When he made mistakes he said he would come back stronger." Unless the stars align for Philly I'll file that away for next season – who knows, maybe I'll be the sucker to pick the Eagles to win it all again? In the meantime, I'm mad at them, and mad at the Chargers – and, for that matter, at the Cardinals (four consecutive victories) and Seahawks (three wins in a row), who are both 7-7 and playing very good football while on the brink of postseason elimination. And while we're at it: WHAT TOOK YOU SO LONG?
TEXT/DIRECT MESSAGE/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"This morning!!! Woke up feeling like a winner this morning!!!"
– Text Sunday evening from Chiefs fullback LeRon McClain, on when he sensed the possibility of an upset (wish he'd called to give me a heads up.
"Took one on the chin today!"
– Text Sunday night from Raiders defensive end Richard Seymour, whose team dropped to 7-7 and will need a lot of help to make the playoffs.
"I am just starting to fight. I will never ever give up. Ever."
– Text Sunday night from Raiders coach Hue Jackson.
"That was not awesome"
– Text Sunday night from Ravens center Matt Birk.
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