DENVER (AP) – Not this time, Tim Tebow.
Tom Brady and the New England Patriots shut down Tebow’s late-game heroics and clinched a playoff berth with a 41-23 victory over the Denver Broncos on Sunday.
The Patriots (11-3) won their sixth straight game and another AFC East title by bouncing back from an early 17-6 deficit and an awful first quarter in which they were outgained on the ground 167 yards to 4.
This time, there was no last-minute magic from Tebow, who had guided the Broncos (8-6) to four straight fourth-quarter comebacks and six straight wins.
Instead of another slow start followed by a fantastic finish, the Broncos started out fast and then fizzled. They scored on their first three possessions and then were done in by a trio of second-quarter turnovers.
Champ Bailey had said the Broncos needed a big game against a big QB to prove to themselves and others that they were not just a curiosity but a contender.
They didn’t get it on this day.
Denver has faced four quarterbacks currently ranked in the top-10 in yards passing — Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Philip Rivers (twice) and Brady. They’re 1-4 in those games.
Brady, who was 23 of 34 for 320 yards with two TD passes and a touchdown run, made up for another bad day by the Patriots’ defense to beat the Broncos for the second time in eight career starts — the only team with a winning record against the three-time Super Bowl champion.
With its first loss since Oct. 30, the AFC West-leading Broncos face a tougher path to the playoffs, with a trip to Buffalo next week followed by a season finale against Kansas City, which ended Green Bay’s 19-game winning streak Sunday behind Kyle Orton, the player Tebow replaced in Denver.
Tebow fell to 7-2 as Denver’s starter.
The Broncos’ 167 yards rushing in the first quarter — 11 more than their league-leading per-game average — represented the biggest output in any quarter of the Bill Belichick era in New England. They finished with 252.
Tebow slipped a tackle in the backfield by Rob Ninkovich and darted his way for a 9-yard TD on the game’s opening drive. Lonnie Paxton’s bad snap prevented Matt Prater from kicking the extra point.
Brady needed five snaps to put the Patriots ahead 7-6 with a 33-yard touchdown toss to Chad Ochocinco, his first score since Nov. 21, 2010, for Cincinnati at Buffalo.
The Broncos responded by going 80 yards in four plays and scoring again. Willis McGahee reeled off a 29-yard run and then retreated to the sideline with what appeared to be a left hamstring injury. Tebow hit Demaryius Thomas for 22 yards before tailback Lance Ball took it in from 32 yards out for his first TD run of his career to make it 13-7.
Denver’s next drive stalled at the 8, and coach John Fox decided not to go for it and Prater’s field goal made it 16-7.
That’s when the Patriots went to the no-huddle and Brady capped an impressive drive with a 1-yard touchdown throw to Aaron Hernandez, who set career highs with nine catches for 129 yards. That made it 16-14.
The Broncos’ ball-control offense stumbled after that.
Ball fumbled at his own 19 and Ninkovich recovered, leading to Stephen Gostkowski’s 21-yard field goal put the Patriots up for good at 17-16.
Then, defensive end Mark Anderson, subbing for Andre Carter, who injured his left knee earlier in the game, forced and recovered a fumble by Tebow at the Broncos 40. Six plays later, Brady took it in himself from a yard out to make it 24-16.
Brady audibled at the line and just inched the nose of the football across the goal line with 1:08 left in the first half, then celebrated his eighth career TD with a masterful spike.
After some questionable play calling by Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, the Broncos punted the ball back to the Patriots with 40 seconds left. They held, but Broncos punt returner Quan Cosby tried to field a punt on the run and muffed it with three seconds left. Dane Fletcher recovered for New England and Gostkowski trotted out for a 34-yard field goal to make it 27-16 at halftime.
After Danny Woodhead’s 10-yard TD run made it 34-16, Tebow’s 2-yard keeper with 8:41 left pulled the Broncos to 34-23, but Brady responded in a big way, leading the Patriots on another 80-yard scoring drive, this one culminating in BenJarvus Green-Ellis’ 1-yard TD run.
Tebow was 11 of 22 for 194 yards and added 93 more on 12 carries. Late in the fourth quarter, he was dropped for a 28-yard sack by Ninkovich, a bad ending to a big week for the second-year pro from Florida.
During the week, Tebow cemented his role as a cultural phenomenon as he was the subject of a skit on “Saturday Night Live,” his name was brought up in the GOP debate in Sioux City, Iowa, and two high school students were suspended for organizing several “Tebowing” kneel-downs in tribute to the Broncos QB.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)