Despite bending early — especially on the defensive side of the ball — the New England Patriots showed that the key to getting past whatever specific comeback magic Tim Tebow possesses is to put the Denver Broncos into a hole that not even Tebow can get them out of. And that's precisely what the Pats did, to the tune of a 41-23 win that gave the 11-3 Pats the best record in the AFC (pending what the Baltimore Ravens do Sunday night [update: they lost] and the Pittsburgh Steelers do Monday night), and yet another AFC East division title.
The game began like so many of the recent games that set the Broncos up for success — with an utterly dominant rushing attack. Against New England's porous defense, the Broncos ran for 167 yards in the first quarter alone, the most a Denver team had ever run for in an opening quarter, and the most in any quarter since a game against the Seattle Seahawks in 2000.
However, that perfect start for Denver started to come apart as the Broncos' worst fears were realized — they knew they couldn't keep up with the Pats if Tom Brady started taking their defense apart, and that's exactly what happened, The Patriots scored a total of 27 unanswered points in the second and third quarters, forcing Tebow to try and do the one thing he simply can't just yet -- though he is improving in many ways — win a shootout with a quarterback of Brady's caliber.
"We did have things going pretty well early," Tebow said. "We scored on our first three possessions, and we felt like we were moving the ball pretty well, but then we put [the ball] on the ground, and that's something you can't do versus a great team and Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Besides that, we were right there with them, and there are a lot of great things that we can take out of this game and try to improve and get better."
The opportunity here, such as it was for the Broncos, was to try and scramble after that scoring burst had them on the wrong end of a 34-16 deficit in the late third quarter. Tebow did lead the Broncos on a seven-play, 89-yard fourth-quarter drive that ended in his own 2-yard touchdown run, and that was the only run of the drive. But as encouraging as that development was, it was clear in the end that the Broncos were playing checkers, and the Patriots were playing chess. Long-sustained drives simply can't compete with that kind of quick-strike attack, and Tebow started to press late in the game. This led to a 28-yard loss on a sack by Pats linebacker Rob Ninkovich, and the end of the game's competitive phase.
"I don't want to blame it on any particular area or people," Broncos head coach John Fox said. "I think all in all we hung with them physically, but mentally I thought there were certain areas as far as dropping the ball on the ground and the turnovers were really the big difference. You're not going to be minus-three against the New England Patriots and win very many ballgames. Having played them very many times, I know that to be true."
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Tebow's passing numbers (11 of 22 for 194 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions) were once again mitigated by his own tremendous effectiveness and efficiency as a rusher. Not only did he pick up 93 yards and two touchdowns on just 12 carries, but the extent to which New England's defense had to keep a bead on him opened up huge gaps for Willis McGahee and Lance Ball.
In the end, it just wasn't enough, and it showed where the Broncos are still vulnerable, despite their recent impressive success stories.
"At the end, [the Patriots were] pinning their ears back because they know we're going to pass and we have to," Tebow said of a New England defense that sacked him four times. "We just don't have enough time to be balanced. They have some great players. Gerard Warren and Vince Wilfork and the two guys off the edges, they play hard and consistent, and they keep in their lanes, and they had some good stunts. They played well. I think every time Gerard Warren hit me [he played at Florida, like Tebow] he said something about Florida as well, so that was pretty funny.
"Our offensive line did a great job. They hung in there, and they competed, and I'm so proud of them and thankful for the effort they put forth."
Another Florida alum — tight end Aaron Hernandez, who was one of Tebow's primary targets with the Gators — really came through in the passing game. While the Broncos focused their efforts on Rob Gronkowski and the Patriots' cadre of receivers, Hernandez went wild, catching nine passes on 11 targets for 129 yards (both career highs) and a touchdown.
"I wished he didn't do it against us, but good for him," Tebow said of his former teammate. "He's a great kid and great player, and I'm so proud of him and how hard he's worked and what he's overcome. I guess you could say New England is smart for taking him [in the NFL draft], but they also waited until the fourth round, so a lot of teams passed on a great player and one of the best tight ends in the league in my opinion. He's pretty good. I was happy to have him on my team for a long time, and it's not always fun to play against him."
Despite serious questions about their defense, the Pats proved that when their offense is on, they present too many potential targets for any defense to deal with. Brady's surgical efficiency (23 completions in 34 attempts for 320 yards and two touchdowns) was readily apparent despite a few early misfires, and when he went no-huddle, the Broncos struggled to keep up even more.
Still, Tebow came away from this game with more obvious development as a pure passer, as a football player, and as a competitor … and some high praise from fairly impressive sources.
"He does a heck of a job," Belichick said after the game. "We know he can run. We know he can throw. He hurt us with some play action. He's a good quarterback. He certainly gave us plenty of problems and hopefully we gave him some, too."
Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, who "Tebowed" after one of Tebow's sacks, explained why. "Yeah, I 'Tebowed'. Absolutely. Are you kidding me? Trust me, everybody in the world hears about this guy. He's a very, very good athlete. I said it last week, he's a winner. You look at his whole resume, the guy knows how to win. He knows how to win. Anytime you speak to a team or little kids or whatever about winning, I'm pretty sure his name's going to come up. How he does it, he does it. It's part of the game. I'm pretty sure I won't be the last one, and I wasn't the first one. That's what he does; he put it out there. I wanted to steal it. I don't think he'll mind, just for one play."
It was more than one play that upended Tebow and his team. The Patriots were simply too far along in their offensive concepts for the Broncos to keep up. But less than a year past the roster destruction Josh McDaniels presented, they're still very much on the right path. As is their young quarterback.
"We never quit and that is going to be our identity, a fighting team until the end," veteran cornerback Champ Bailey said. "We showed that today; we just didn't come out on top."
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