Patriots defeat Broncos


Tebow and Broncos Have No Comeback for Patriots

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Tom Brady and Tim Tebow after the Patriots’ win in a game between division leaders.

Published: December 18, 2011

DENVER — At a busy shopping strip Saturday afternoon, there was a man dressed as a robot meant to entertain and lure frantic Christmas shoppers. At one point, as a few men strolled by, the robot yelled, “Now, I’ll Tebow for you!” and he dropped to one knee and lowered his head in an imitation of the now well-known pose of the quarterback who has captivated the N.F.L. this season. The men — a few of them wearing Patriots jerseys — laughed and kept moving. They, after all, have seen pretenders before.

Tim Tebow fumbling on a hit by the Patriots’ Mark Anderson. The Broncos lost three fumbles and the defense allowed 451 yards.

So have the Patriots, and on Sunday they got the last laugh and perhaps restored some order to the N.F.L. universe with a 41-23 win over the Denver Broncos that locked up the A.F.C. East for the Patriots (11-3). Because the Oakland Raiders lost, the Broncos (8-6) retain a one-game lead — and the edge in tiebreakers — in the A.F.C. West.

For two months, Tim Tebow has threatened to upend the conventional wisdom of how offensive football must be played — pass effectively and roll up lots of points — and in a 7-1 run since becoming the Broncos’ starter, Tebow has at least dented the egos of those who said he could not hope to succeed. Tebow has been the pre-eminent story of the season, and he passed as well as he has all season on Sunday, finishing 11 of 22 for 194 yards.

But Tom Brady and the Patriots have been the pre-eminent team of the decade and by lashing the Broncos’ defense for 451 yards, which included a clock-chewing 80-yard drive late in the fourth quarter, they removed the threat of what everyone had come to see: another late-game Tebow rally.

While Tebow has been credited for the Broncos’ revival, he had been put in position for all those comebacks because the Broncos’ defense had held opponents to few points in close games, allowing Tebow to work his magic, and opponents to disintegrate late.

That formula seemed to work early. In the first quarter, the Broncos ran right at the Patriots, who gave up 167 yards rushing, part of 218 yards over all. But after taking a 16-7 lead early in the second quarter, the Broncos began to self-destruct. The offense had the ball for just nine snaps in the quarter, but the Broncos had three fumbles, which the Patriots turned into 13 points on their way to scoring 27 unanswered points. Later, there were big penalties that extended Patriots drives and gigantic holes for the Patriots’ twin tight ends — Aaron Hernandez (nine catches for 129 yards) and Rob Gronkowski (four catches for 53 yards) — to run through.

“Our guys fought, and we tried to get back into it,” Coach John Fox said. “But the reality is, we’re not at the stage where we can overcome minus-3.”

Patriots Coach Bill Belichick said a switch from a four-man line to a 3-4 defense improved the Patriots’ spacing, and helped settle them down.

For Tebow’s detractors, however, this game will be evidence that Tebow cannot compete against the N.F.L.’s upper echelon of offenses, and that might turn out to be true. But Tebow, typically, remained optimistic about the Broncos, which, under the circumstances, was easy to do. They lost nothing in the playoff race, and the deficiencies in this game were obvious.

“Every time there’s a setback, there’s more of an opportunity for a new step up,” he said. “If we held onto the ball in this game, who knows what happens.”

Maybe things would have been different. Brady was 23 of 34 for 320 yards, 2 touchdowns and no interceptions, glittering statistics aided by the three extra possessions the Broncos gave him. Despite the improvement after the first quarter — the Patriots gave up 175 yards in the final three quarters — the Patriots’ defense remains a concern.

Tebow’s passes are improving, but the Broncos still play a conservative style — running first, out of the option or a more conventional attack — and Tebow’s throws are often the safest ones. So the Patriots probably did not learn much about their defense from this game, except that they can stop the run when they know it is coming, and they can stop the pass when a flawed quarterback is forced to throw.

Still, the Patriots are on a familiar trajectory. A loss by the Houston Texans earlier Sunday propelled the Patriots into one of the A.F.C’s top two seeds, with a potential first-round bye in the offing.

“That’s one of our goals at the start of the season: to meet the challenge of our division, and our players have done that,” Belichick said. “We are 6-2 on the road. They’ve done a good job.”

The Broncos are still on a joy ride. With games against the Bills and the Chiefs left, they are in position to win the division and host a playoff game. Even with this loss, the scrutiny of Tebow is unlikely to abate. He remains a cheerful curiosity in a league that prefers the predictable. Even his coaches, who have changed their offense to use his talents, sometimes offer praise that does not come out quite right.

“He’s gotten better every week,” Fox said. “Six or seven weeks ago, people said that he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, but I think he does that.”

Before the game, stadium workers put metallic pompoms at each seat, and in the early afternoon sun the stadium twinkled like a Christmas tree. It was an appropriately festive scene for a team that has been enlivened by a quarterback playing with purpose and smashing the doubts that might have engulfed him and the Broncos.

After the game, Tebow said, Belichick approached him. Belichick told Tebow he believed in him, and encouraged him to keep fighting. Even if his passes sometimes miss, he will surely do that.

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