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Physical, fearless and with a canny sense of game-on-the-line timing that's becoming his signature, the great young Denver Bronco busted through the line, pushed past an opponent and made a result-altering play.
"That was a huge play," Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow(notes) said. Yes, there was the rookie linebacker making a clutch, overtime tackle of San Diego Chargers running back Mike Tolbert(notes) for a four-yard loss. The play forced the Chargers into a just-too-long 53-yard overtime field goal attempt that wound up off course.
Not that Tebow saw either play.
"I can't say I saw too much of it," Tebow said. "I was praying."
Praying for a miss?
"I might have said that," Tebow laughed. "Or maybe a block. Maybe all of it."
Tebow and the offense took over and six plays later Matt Prater(notes) was booting home the game-winning field goal, giving Denver its fourth consecutive victory. It moved the one-time 1-4 club to 6-5 and leaving a rather obvious, if once impossible, goal right in front of them:
Don't laugh; the Broncos could be Tebowing right into January. They're not just one of the hottest teams in the league. They're not just one of the most confident either. Their remaining schedule is favorable, starting next Sunday at the 2-9 Minnesota Vikings and followed by a visit from the Chicago Bears (7-4), featuring quarterback Caleb Hanie(notes) who threw three picks in Sunday's loss to the Oakland Raiders.
The New England Patriots show up the following Sunday in a game that will likely be flexed to primetime. The schedule closes out with games at Buffalo (5-6) and at home against Kansas City (4-7).
Denver could be favored in four of those five games, the Patriots being the lone exception. The AFC West-leading Raiders, at 7-4, have it a bit tougher – their remaining schedule includes the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions.
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At this point, anything's possible and that alone is saying something. The Broncos' season was supposed to be over after that horrific start, the proof coming when they decided to bench Kyle Orton(notes) in favor of the Tim Tebow Experiment.
Tebow was expected to flounder, helping secure a high draft pick, and then be sent packing.
Only nothing went as planned. Of course, Tebow doesn't do anything according to plan. He does get plenty of praise for his late-game heroics, but it was the instant maturation of the defense, led by the young Mr. Miller, that has made it all possible. Without the defense's play the first 59 minutes, there is no game for Tebow to steal at the end.
Opponents scored an average of 28 points a game during the 1-4 start. Since then, the Broncos have allowed just 15 a game in their five victories. They've held teams to 10, 13 and 13 the last three weeks, Sunday's game requiring an extra quarter.
[ Related: NFL official gets confused while explaining OT rules ]
"I think the style and the formula that we're using helps the defense but there is no doubt they've gelled," coach John Fox said. "They're playing with a lot more swagger and confidence."
Miller is an absolute force in the middle. Denver plucked him out of Texas A&M with the second overall pick and he's a shoe-in for rookie defensive player of the year honors. The way he's played (seven more tackles, one more sack on Sunday) he's at least in the discussion for overall defensive player honors.
"He's very gifted," Fox said. "He's someone to deal with."
Suddenly so too are the Broncos. And no one believes it more than the team itself.
"It's a chicken and an egg thing," Fox said. "This game is about confidence. The ultimate confidence comes from when you win. … We've been able to turn that 1-4 start into 6-5 and it couldn't have been possible without those players and coaches sticking together and believing in each other."
Tebow says that's especially true when things aren't going well. "We get closer rather than pulling apart," Tebow said.
Tebow threw for just 9 of 18 for 143 yards and one touchdown. He ran 22 times for 67 yards. Mostly, he didn't turn the ball over, got the ball to Willis McGahee(notes) (117 yards rushing) and made the critical plays when it counted.
"[He played] well enough to win," Fox said. "And we'll take it every single week, including next week."
This is where this fantasy ride becomes really interesting. This was all some crazy gamble and now the long shot keeps coming in. Denver has been playing with the kind of carefree attitude that's coveted by coaches, yet almost impossible to manufacture.
Only now, the stakes get real. At Minnesota isn't just another chance to try to pull out a victory. It's a must-win if they're serious about playing into January.
The season got unexpectedly saved in a hurry. December's coming and Denver is in the mix. Playoffs? Tebow. Miller. McGahee. How can't they be talking about the playoffs?
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