Column: Loss doesn't mean it's not still Tebowtime
Midway through a not-so-funny "Saturday Night Live" sketch, an actor playing Jesus was in the locker room discussing Denver's winning streak with what was supposed to be Tim Tebow and his teammates.
After taking credit for helping the Broncos win six in a row, he was told the New England Patriots were coming to town next.
"Oh, boy. Really? Wow. Did not know that," he said. "That's gonna to be a tough one."
It was, though it's hard to blame Tebow for the loss Sunday that derailed — at least temporarily — the cultural phenomenon that was sweeping the country. Without Tom Brady running the New England offense with his usual cool efficiency, this game might have ended like the past half dozen, with Tebow scrambling and throwing his way to yet another fourth-quarter miracle win.
Coming back is one thing. Coming back against a quarterback that knows a little something about fourth-quarter dramatics himself is quite another.
The Patriots weren't going to make the kind of mistakes that doomed other teams against Tebow in the fourth quarter. Bill Belichick wasn't going to order Brady to hand the ball off to protect a lead only to have the strategy backfire.
The better quarterback played like the great quarterback he is. The better team won, just like they were supposed to.
There would be no Tebowtime this time.
There was, however, something about the way Tebow and the Denver offense played that — along with an Oakland Raiders loss — had to make the Broncos and their fans feel pretty good about themselves.
It sure didn't get the relentlessly upbeat Tebow down — as if that was possible.
"There's a lot of great things we can take out of this game," Tebow said. "Every time there's a setback there's more of an opportunity for a new step up."
Cliches, yes, but you get the idea Tebow believes them. And no one should question a quarterback who believes as much as he does.
The argument could actually be made that Tebow had one of his better games in what ended up a 41-23 blowout. He surely had one of his best first quarters, leading Denver to a 16-7 lead before Brady took over in a game that clinched the AFC East for the Patriots.
No, the statistics weren't spectacular, though with Tebow they never are. But there were further signs of progress, and more indications that Tebow will grow into a quarterback that Denver boss John Elway can learn to love.
Most everyone else seems to love him already. The "Saturday Night Live" sketch capped a week where it was hard to go anywhere without being reminded that we are witnessing one of the most fascinating players in one of the most enthralling runs in all of sports.
Tebowmania is so rampant that NBC wanted to move the afternoon game to prime time, though the NFL declined. The art of Tebowing continues to sweep the country, Tebow tributes are all over YouTube, and presidential candidate Rick Perry even brought him up during the latest Republican debate.
"I am the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses," Perry proclaimed.
For all that, though, Tebow doesn't play unless he can win. This is the NFL, after all, a brutally cutthroat business that Vince Lombardi defined so aptly a half century ago when he talked about winning being everything.
That Tebow is a winner is hard to dispute. He was in college at Florida and he is in Denver, where he began the year as the third-string backup and is now 7-2 as a starter.
Those are the numbers to study when looking at Tebow. Those are the stats to think about when wondering how his wobbly passes ever find their targets.
He wasn't going to win every game with a fourth-quarter comeback. Nobody ever has, though it has to be some comfort to Denver fans that Tebow finally showed against the Pats that he can start a game almost as strong as he usually ends it.
He's fooled almost everyone along the way, including the Las Vegas bookies who kept making the Broncos underdogs even as they kept finding ways to pull out wins behind Tebow.
They were underdogs again against the Patriots, though most teams are. But there will come a time when Tebow becomes known not as the magician who can pull wins out of a hat but as a quarterback who can run a balanced offense from the opening kickoff.
That time isn't here yet, but there were signs of more progress in the loss than there were in the six wins that preceded it.
"I definitely feel we're all right," Tebow said. "We've got two big games, we'll prepare extremely hard. We're excited where we're at, and we're going to stay positive and stay motivated."
He believes. And nothing that happened Sunday in Denver is going to stop people from believing in Tebow, too.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg