Whether you are a Tebow-ite or Tebow critic, Denver's 35-32 win against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday was something of a breakthrough. Tebow, now 6-1 as Denver's starter after engineering his fourth fourth-quarter comeback in that span, did his best work through the air, particularly in a back-and-forth final quarter. The Broncos, with the help of a second critical interception by Vikings rookie quarterback Christian Ponder(notes), scored two field goals in the final 93 seconds for the win and are now tied with the Oakland Raiders for first place in the AFC West.
Unlike so many other games, where Tebow played more like a single-wing quarterback, this contest was won on the strength of his left wing. Where he previously seemed lucky to make two or three good throws, virtually everything he threw in this game was either on target or was the correct read after things broke down.
Moreover, the technical parts of throwing have vastly improved over the past seven games (including the Week 5 outing against the San Diego Chargers when he relieved former starter Kyle Orton(notes)). In Tebow's starting debut at Miami on Oct. 23, there were times when he looked lost. His eye level would drop after the first read, making it impossible for him to throw downfield or even find a second receiver.
On Sunday at Denver, Tebow had moments where he looked like Ben Roethlisberger(notes) when it comes to keeping the eyes downfield. His scrambling throw to Demaryius Thomas(notes) for a 41-yard touchdown was a prime example. Tebow's ability to maintain proper focus was a thing of beauty. It helps to face man-to-man coverage by the Vikings that at times was like something from a high school game.
Still, those who blindly support Tebow and others who question him need to meet in the middle. Those who believe that Tebow's low-scoring, run-first, option-like style will work don't understand the nature of the NFL. You can't win long-term scoring less than 20 points as was proved on Sunday.
In the NFL, eventually other teams score. Even bad teams like 2-10 Minnesota score on good defensive teams such as Denver. This is where you have to throw it with some authority.
That doesn't mean 40 or 50 passes a week; probably something north of the 15 chances Tebow got (he completed 10 of those 15 for 202 yards and two touchdowns vs. the Vikings). You have to beat a blitz with a strong, accurate and aggressive throw the way Tebow did when he hit Thomas for 42 yards immediately after the Vikings took a 29-21 lead in the fourth quarter.
Tebow only attempted six passes in the first half, completing four for 29 yards. Now, part of the problem was that the Broncos had the ball for less than 10 minutes before intermission as its defense scored a touchdown and a safety and lost fumble by running back Willis McGahee(notes) quickly ended two of their first three possessions. However, the point is that Tebow needs to be allowed to throw and put in more positive passing situations if the Broncos are going to have an offense that can realistically compete and, more important, Tebow can be a real threat.
Plenty of fans will counter that this way is winning, so don't change it. Sorry, that's not realistic. The NFL is a throwing league. Again, this is not a plea to let Tebow throw 40 times, but there are a lot of numbers between 15 and 40 that work just fine.
Expecting Tebow to pull out one game after another in the fourth quarter is a brutal burden. As the league has seen with Josh Freeman(notes) in Tampa Bay, fourth-quarter magic tends to even out. The point is to reduce the number of games you have to pull out of your rear, not live by them.
And this is not to say that Tebow has completely evolved. There are still problems with his mechanics, as Fox's broadcast team documented with a great graphic that broke down his throwing motion from college to now (it's pretty much the same). The truth is, that's probably never going to change. Put it in these terms: Early in golfer Tiger Woods' career, he worked hard to change his swing. It took him a year, and he doesn't get hit by 300-pound men on a regular basis.
Still, Tebow has come far enough, fast enough that he deserves more latitude than what happened in a desperate second half.
Here are the winners and losers for Week 13:
• Wouldn't you know that on the day that Minnesota's Percy Harvin(notes) had the biggest game of his career as a wide receiver (eight catches, 156 yards, two touchdowns), he was overshadowed once again by Tebow. Harvin was teammates with Tebow at Florida, the two propelling the Gators to the national championship in the 2008 season. However, many people believe that Harvin was actually the more dynamic player of the two because of his great speed and elusiveness. It was just that Tebow got most of the attention because he was the quarterback. Regardless, Harvin put on an amazing show and put the Vikings ahead 29-21 in the middle of the fourth quarter before Tebow performed his magic. What's ultimately more important is that Harvin has taken off since Christian Ponder became the starting quarterback. In six games with Ponder, Harvin has 34 catches for 449 yards and four touchdowns. He also has a rushing touchdown during that run.
[ Full college bowl schedule: Gators to face Buckeyes ]
• Speaking of wide receivers who are becoming dominant in a hurry, the Pittsburgh Steelers' Antonio Brown(notes) continued his outstanding play. He had two catches for 67 yards and three punt returns for 65 yards. Among the punt returns was a 60-yarder for a touchdown that helped break the game open. His longest reception of the day was a 45-yarder, which is also his season best. While the Steelers are trying to be respectful of veteran Hines Ward(notes), there is little question that Brown is the second-best receiver on the team behind Mike Wallace(notes). And don't sleep on Emmanuel Sanders(notes), who was ahead of Brown on the depth chart last season.
• One week after knocking off Jacksonville but losing quarterback Matt Leinart(notes) in the process, running back Arian Foster(notes) was predictably asked to carry a big load against the Atlanta Falcons. He responded with 31 carries for 111 yards and one touchdown in the win Sunday. Foster can expect to become a true bell cow runner the rest of the season (think 30 to 35 carries a game). With that in mind, he should consider it a blessing in disguise that he missed most of the first three games with a hamstring injury. If Foster averages 30 carries a game and maintains his average of 4.5 catches a game over the final four contests, he will finish the season with more than 400 touches.
• No doubt that New Orleans is hot, but they're also taking advantage of a scheduling quirk. The game against Detroit on Sunday night was the Saints' sixth straight indoors. After they face Tennessee on the road next Sunday, they finish with three more games indoors (two at home and another in Minnesota). For a team that likes to throw and play fast, you couldn't ask for much more.
• Despite having a 31-3 lead after three quarters against the winless Indianapolis Colts, expect New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick to ride his team hard from a mental standpoint. The Patriots were incredibly sloppy in the fourth quarter, allowing Indianapolis to score 21 points to make the end nerve-racking. Belichick's team went three possessions without getting a first down to help burn the clock at the end. And it's not as if they stopped throwing. On the first two possessions, the Patriots passed on five of six plays.
• Props to Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice(notes), who rushed for a career-high 204 yards on 29 carries and added a touchdown in the 24-10 win over the Cleveland Browns. Rice took advantage of the fact that Cleveland's anemic offense was so little a threat that the Ravens had no need to keep scoring after going up 17-3 after the third quarter. While on the topic of the Browns, quarterback Colt McCoy's(notes) average per pass attempt continues to plummet. He's at 5.8 for the season. For a quarterback, 7.0 yards per attempt is a reasonable number. McCoy is becoming the Mario Mendoza of passing.
• Nice work by the San Francisco 49ers to post their first shutout of the season after the frustrating loss at Baltimore on Thanksgiving. Yeah, it was only the St. Louis Rams, but a shutout is a shutout. It's the fourth time the 49ers have held a team to less than 10 points this season.
• Congratulations to Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton(notes), who scored three touchdowns in the win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the way to breaking the NFL record for rushing TDs by a quarterback since the NFL merger in 1970. Newton has 13 now, breaking the mark of 12 held by New England's Steve Grogan in 1976.
• Here's the latest episode in the NFL's mystery series "What is a Catch?" In the third quarter of the Packers-Giants game, Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers(notes) hit wide receiver Greg Jennings(notes) for a 20-yard touchdown. On the replay, Jennings appeared to juggle the pass ever so slightly before rookie cornerback Prince Amukamara(notes) knocked the ball out as Jennings went beyond the end line. Upon review, the play stood as a catch. If you put Jennings' "catch" up next to plays that have been called incomplete, such as the famous Calvin Johnson(notes) play in the 2010 opener against Chicago and the Jermaine Gresham(notes) play against Baltimore this season, the Jennings play looks the most illegitimate.
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• Having mentioned the Denver-Minnesota game already and how bad the Vikings' coverage was in this game, you also have to wonder about the Vikings' pass rush. Defensive end Jared Allen(notes) did sack Tebow and forced him to fumble once in the first half, but this is a team that should have a much better pass rush. The Vikings should have seen this much of a drop after losing defensive end Ray Edwards(notes) in free agency. Nonetheless, it has happened.
• What a brutal affair Chicago fans had to endure as they watched Caleb Hanie(notes) and Tyler Palko(notes) face off in a 10-3 bore-a-thon. Palko had to go in after Kyle Orton hurt his hand after just one pass. The result was a combined 290 yards of passing offense by the two teams. Throw in an injury to Chicago running back Matt Forte(notes) and it's fair to say that fans had grounds to request refunds. The coup de grace in the game is that the most important play, a 38-yard touchdown pass from Palko to Dexter McCluster(notes) on a Hail Mary just before half, a play where you couldn't tell immediately if McCluster caught it.
• Not only did the Raiders get shut out for the first three quarters (check later remarks about the passing of Carson Palmer(notes) Sunday), but the defense was downright awful. How bad was it Sunday at Miami? The Raiders allowed scatback Reggie Bush(notes) to go for 100 yards rushing on 22 carries (and Bush's fifth touchdown in the past four games). It was the second 100-yard game of the season for Bush and the third of his career. Usually, Bush does that with a bunch of big runs. This was more of a grinder effort. The last thing Bush does is grind.
• Buffalo Bills running back C.J. Spiller(notes) had a decent day if you're looking at it only from a statistical standpoint. He had 83 yards rushing on 14 carries and caught three passes for 19 yards. This is nothing close to what the Bills expected of him when he was the No. 9 overall pick in the 2010 draft. Spiller's biggest problems: he doesn't run that hard and rarely breaks a tackle. Throw in that he's not nearly as explosive as Sunday counterpart Chris Johnson and it's getting real close to declaring Spiller a bust.
(FIVE THINGS I LOVED AND FIVE THINGS I LOATHED)
Loved: That the Miami Dolphins put the late Jim Mandich in their Ring of Honor. While Mandich, a member of the undefeated 1972 Dolphins, was never a great player, he was the embodiment of a smart and passionate supporter, using wit and self-deprecating humor to become a fixture on the team and in the community. Mandich served as the team's color commentator before passing away in April. He was never afraid to say what he thought about how the team was playing, good or bad. His "All right, Miami" catchphrase was a perfect signature.
Loathed: The throwing of Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer against the Dolphins was atrocious. Not that Palmer was an interception machine – he was picked only once – but he was ugly with a lot of his throws, trying to put touch on passes he should have fired and firing passes he should have put touch on. The worst play might have been one that was erased by a penalty. Palmer was nearly picked off after throwing across his body while scrambling to his right. Ugly, just ugly. Palmer is way better than that.
Loved: I've never been a huge fan of Miami wide receiver Brandon Marshall(notes), but give the guy credit when credit is due. Marshall has played well the past five weeks as the Dolphins have improved, winning four of those games. Marshall came into the game having gained at least 98 yards in receiving in three of the past four games. On Sunday, he had 60 yards – 38 on a terrific catch over the middle to set up Matt Moore's(notes) rushing touchdown in the third quarter that put the Dolphins up 27-0.
Loathed: Seeing Chicago's Forte injure his knee in the first quarter against Kansas City and miss the rest of the game. The injury, reportedly an MCL sprain, should serve as proof of two things: Titans running back Chris Johnson wasn't wrong to hold out to get his money and Chicago wasn't wrong to not give Forte a new contract this season. The shelf-life of running backs is just so fragile in the NFL.
Loved: Seeing Tennessee's Johnson gain 121 yards on his first 12 carries against the Bills. For anyone who thought Johnson had cashed out after getting his new contract, here's proof that he's the same guy as always. Johnson has now topped the 100-yard mark in three of his past four outings. He is averaging more than 121 rushing yards over that four-game stretch despite gaining only 13 yards in Week 11 against the Atlanta Falcons.
Loathed: The red zone passing of Washington Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman(notes) against the Jets. On consecutive throws, Grossman came nowhere near to completing a pass to a Redskins receiver. Rather, his two passes came close to being caught by a total of five different defenders. Grossman also managed a late interception to preserve his streak of eight consecutive games with a pick. Additionally, he had a crucial fumble in the fourth quarter that killed any chance for a comeback.
Loved: The look on New York Jets coach Mike Westhoff's face after returner Jeremy Kerley(notes) muffed a punt that the Redskins recovered with 59 seconds remaining in the first half. That led to a field goal for Washington 35 seconds later. If looks could kill. Or, as New York Times NFL reporter Judy Battista said: "It's good that Westhoff doesn't walk with a cane anymore or he'd be beating some player right now."
Loathed: The Cowboys have a lot of star players, such as DeMarcus Ware(notes), Jason Witten(notes), Dez Bryant(notes) and Tony Romo(notes). Yet, they play some of the most inconsistent football you will ever see. Just the thought that they could be tied with the Arizona Cardinals with less than five minutes left in a game is ridiculous for a team with that much talent, particularly coming on the heels of having 10 days off after Thanksgiving and after an inconsistent game against Miami. If the Cowboys were really any good, they would grind a team like Arizona up, even on the road.
Loved: Atlanta wide receiver Julio Jones'(notes) 20-yard reception with 35 seconds remaining at Houston. Although the Falcons failed to score on the game's final series and send the contest to overtime, Jones gave them a chance with an outstanding leaping catch followed by some terrific footwork as he was coming down. Good stuff.
Loathed: The reaction by Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Pierre Garcon(notes) in the fourth quarter when the Colts got to within 31-17. Give the Colts credit for making a game of it in the fourth quarter, but Garcon's firing of the football at a sign with a target for Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski(notes) was unnecessary.
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