ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) – Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos’ comeback train were derailed by an opportunistic Buffalo Bills defense.
Safety Jairus Byrd and linebacker Spencer Johnson returned Tebow interceptions for touchdowns on consecutive plays from scrimmage in the fourth quarter to seal Buffalo’s 40-14 rout on Saturday. The Bills snapped a seven-game skid and stalled the Broncos in their bid to secure their first playoff berth since 2005.
Tebow finished with a career-worst four interceptions as the Broncos (8-7) lost their second in a row and fell into a tie with Oakland for first place in the AFC West. The Broncos close the season at home against Kansas City next week, while Oakland hosts San Diego.
Byrd scored on a 37-yard return with 8:03 left and Johnson had a 17-yarder just 18 seconds later as Buffalo (6-9) ended its home schedule with a victory. C.J. Spiller rushed for a career-best 111 yards and a touchdown, and Leodis McKelvin scored on an 80-yard punt return.
PHOTO GALLERY: Bills 40, Broncos 14
Dave Rayner shook off two missed field-goal attempts — and a booing crowd — to hit his final four, all from within 29 yards.
The Bills set a single-season franchise record with five interceptions returned for touchdowns.
The last two came at the expense of Tebow, who had generated a national buzz for his ability to produce in the clutch. Entering the game with two interceptions all season, he was picked off four times in the second half as his record dropped to 7-3 since taking over the starting job.
Rather than inspiring a fourth-quarter comeback — something he’s done five times this season — he essentially ended the Broncos’ chances in the final 8 minutes.
Dropping back from his own 10, Tebow attempted to hit Eric Decker up the left hash mark, only to have Byrd jump the route and return it for a score.
On the Broncos’ next play from scrimmage, linebacker Chris Kelsay batted the ball out of Tebow’s hand, and it fell into the arms of Johnson, who ran it in from 17 yards.
Tebow finished 13 of 30 for 185 yards with a 17-yard touchdown pass to Daniel Fells. He added 34 yards rushing, and scored on a 1-yard plunge.
While Tebow was struggling, his Bills counterpart, Ryan Fitzpatrick enjoyed his most efficient game in two months by going 15 of 27 for 196 yards with no interceptions. The Bills quarterback was taking plenty of heat during the seven-game skid, in which he threw eight touchdowns versus 12 interceptions.
Except for scoring touchdowns on their first possession of each half, nothing went right for the Broncos.
They went nowhere in the first half after Tebow capped a 73-yard opening drive with a 1-yard run. Denver managed just 21 yards and no first downs on its final six possessions, including a kneeldown in the final seconds.
The Bills responded after Rayner missed field-goal attempts wide left from 45 and 34 yards on consecutive possessions. Rayner finally hit from 28 yards, helping the Bills score 17 points in the final 6:06 of the first half.
McKelvin sparked the Bills with his 80-yard punt return. He broke up the left sideline and avoided being tripped up by punter Britton Colquitt at the Broncos 15-yard line before keeping his balance and stumbling into the end zone.
Eddie Royal returned the ensuing kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown, but it was negated by a block in the back penalty against Dante Rosario.
After the Broncos’ fifth consecutive three-and-out, Fitzpatrick hit David Nelson for a perfectly placed 30-yard pass up the right sideline to set up Spiller’s 4-yard touchdown run.
Tebow opened the second half by hitting Fells for a score that briefly cut the Bills’ lead to 17-14, but that was as close as the Broncos got.
The Broncos converted just two of 13 third-down chances and Tebow had four of his final six drives end with interceptions.
By JOHN WAWROW, AP Sports Writer
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)