Tim Tebow was in his element, late in the fourth quarter, scrambling madly backward on fourth down, trying to conjure up another piece of magic. He turned left, then right, then left again.
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This time, though, there was no way out of his fix, no Mile High Miracle.
Tebow was sacked by New England linebacker Rob Ninkovich for a 28-yard loss, then picked himself up, unbuckled his chin strap and walked off the field looking like he rarely has this season — beaten.
The play, an exclamation point to the Patriots’ 41-23 victory, may have had little to do with the outcome, but it typified the type of day it was for the Broncos. They were hemmed in and squeezed by the Patriots, who left them no room for another late comeback, snapped the Broncos’ six-game winning streak and stemmed — for a week, anyway — the phenomenon that is Tebowmania.
The events of the past week made it hard to remember there was a marquee game. A drug-sniffing dog named Tebow helped police in a trafficking case; high-school students were suspended for "Tebowing"; a Colorado microbrewery announced plans for a new ale, Tebrew; and "Saturday Night Live" featured a Tebow skit, in which Jesus comes into the Broncos’ locker room after a win.
When the game was over, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady found Tebow at midfield and gave him some words of encouragement, and Bill Belichick embraced Tebow and did the same.
But rather than serve as any sort of referendum on Tebow — or reveal a Belichick blueprint on how to beat him — the game simply underscored the frailties of both teams as the playoffs loom.
For the Broncos — who still own a one-game lead in the AFC West thanks to Oakland’s very Raiders-like collapse against Detroit — their formula of defense, special teams and late Tebow heroics is undermined if the team turns the ball over. That happened three times in the second quarter and radically altered the game.
Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said the loss showed that Denver is not yet among the NFL’s elite, and his coach said the same.
“Our guys fought and we tried to get back into it,” Denver coach John Fox said. “But the reality is we’re not at the stage where we can overcome minus-3 (turnover margin).”
For New England, which won its sixth in a row to clinch the AFC East, there remain questions about whether Brady (23-of-34 passing for 320 yards and two TDs on Sunday), who feasted on a secondary with three rookies, can outperform a Patriots defense that seems capable of stopping offenses only one way — taking the ball away.
Can they count on similar generosity in the playoffs against the likes of Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and perhaps the Broncos and Jets?
Early on, the Patriots looked just like the team that has not won a playoff game since they rolled into the Super Bowl four years ago unbeaten.
The Broncos rushed for 167 yards . . . in the first quarter. It was enough to put them in an unusual position, with an early 16-7 lead. But a fumble by Lance Ball, another by Tebow and a muffed punt by Quan Cosby — the latter with three seconds left in the half — led directly to 13 points that put New England in control at halftime, 27-16.
“If we hold on to the ball in this game, who knows what happens?” Tebow said. “That’s one of our keys, if not the biggest.”
Those were not the only mistakes.
Tebow fumbled the ball in his own end zone, but averted a catastrophe when he picked up the loose ball and threw it away.
And the Denver defense, which had been so stout during the winning streak, had no pass rush and no answer for tight end Aaron Hernandez, a teammate of Tebow’s at Florida who caught nine passes for 129 yards.
A hands-to-the-face penalty on Denver’s Robert Ayers kept the Patriots from having to punt from their own 20 on the opening series of the second half. While it didn’t lead to a score, it dramatically changed field position, and soon the Broncos had to abandon the running game, which nevertheless gained 252 yards and averaged 8.1 yards per carry.
“It was one of those nights,” Cosby said. “Whoever had that voodoo doll needs to put it up and never bring it back out. It was a rough night.”
The Broncos professed that the loss would not shake their faith in each other — or in their unconventional quarterback. And in the locker room afterward, Fox approached Tebow, who completed 11 of 22 passes for 194 yards and rushed for 93 more, as he was talking with teammates. The coach admonished him for not taking better care of the ball and also encouraged him not to dwell on it.
“Six or seven weeks ago, people said he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, but he can do that,” Fox said, a bit of faint praise that may or may not have been intended. “I don’t think that’s why we lost the game tonight.”
True enough. But for the first time in many weeks, it seemed as if the team Tebow most inspired was on the opposite sideline. The Patriots are masters at turning perceived slights into rallying cries — just ask Freddie Mitchell — and they did so again.
Though Brady denied that his angry spike — after his sneak for a touchdown — was a retort to Tebow, who furiously pumped his fists and exhorted the crowd after an earlier score, not every Patriot demurred.
After Ninkovich finally corralled Tebow on his meandering scramble, teammate Vince Wilfork had to take a knee.
It was not from exhaustion.
“Yeah, I Tebowed,” Wilfork admitted with a smile. “Absolutely. Are you kidding me? Trust me, everybody in the world hears about this guy. I said last week, he’s a winner. How he does it, he does it. 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 (the gesture) out there. I wanted to steal it. I don’t think he’ll mind, just for one play.”