Not this time, Tim Tebow.
Not with Tom Brady on hand.
Brady threw for two touchdowns, ran for another, and the New England Patriots shut down Tebows late-game heroics and clinched a playoff berth with a 41-23 victory over the Denver Broncos on Sunday.
It was a really good day for us, Brady said. Very emotional game. It was really rocking early. We showed some mental toughness.
The Patriots (11-3) won their sixth consecutive game and another AFC East title by bouncing back from an early 17-6 deficit and an absolutely 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 consecutive fourth-quarter comebacks and six consecutive wins.
Instead of another slow start followed by a fantastic finish, the Broncos started fast and then fizzled.
They scored on their first three possessions and then were done in by a trio of turnovers in the final 8½ minutes of the second quarter.
We did have things going pretty well early, scored on the first three possessions and felt like we were moving the ball good, and then we put it on the ground, Tebow said. Thats something you cant do against a great team and Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
Besides that, we were right there with them.
Champ Bailey had said the Broncos needed a big game against a highly-regardedquarterback to prove to themselves and others that they were not just a curiosity but a contender.
They didnt get it on this day.
We showed (Sunday) that were not ready to go to the playoffs and make a push, Bailey said. Weve got to get better, and we only have two or three weeks to do it. If we dont, then well be sitting home.
For a sixth consecutive season.
With their 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 Bays 19-game winning streak Sunday behind Kyle Orton, the player Tebow replaced in Denver.
I definitely feel like were all right, said Tebow, now 7-2 as Denvers starter.
He threw for 194 yards and ran for 93 yards and two scores but was sacked four times, including a 28-yard loss in the fourth quarter.
I thought he improved, coach John Fox said. Hell continue to improve. This was a setback, no doubt about that. But sometimes setbacks are setups for bigger things to come.
After all, the last time Tebow lost, to Detroit on Oct. 30, he was put on notice that his starting job was a week-to-week proposition, and Tebow responded by leading Denver to wins in his next six starts.
The one thing Tebow and the Broncos havent been able to do is keep up with the leagues elite passers. Denver has faced four quarterbacks currently ranked in the top 10 in yards passing Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Philip Rivers (twice) and Brady. Theyre 1-4 in those games.
Asked if Tebow & Co. can keep up with the leagues top passers if they make it into the playoffs, Fox said: I cant predict that. Hes gotten better every week. Six or seven weeks ago, people said he couldnt hit the broad side of a barn. He does that. I think he can do that. I dont think that was why we lost the game (Sunday).
Hes still the best out there, in my opinion, Bailey said. And you make mistakes against a guy like that, hes going to make you pay. Thats pretty much what happened all day.
Safety Brian Dawkins missed the game with a neck injury, and the Broncos missed him as they had to rely on rookies Quinton Carter and Raheem Moore.
You cant expect to get the same results when you lose a guy like that, Bailey said. But, at the same time, guys have to step up as professionals. You cant play like that and expect to get wins.
Brady was 23 of 34, including his first scoring toss to Chad Ochocinco. His touchdown run was his first of the year.
Brady 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.
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 Belichick era in New England.
But they would manage just 85 more.
After the Patriots fell behind 16-7, they went to the no-huddle, and Brady threw a 1-yard touchdown strike to Aaron Hernandez, who set career highs with nine catches for 129 yards.
The Broncos ball-control offense stumbled after that.
Lance Ball, who earlier scored his first touchdown in the NFL on a beautiful 32-yard scamper, fumbled at his own 19, and linebacker Rob Ninkovich recovered, leading to Stephen Gostkowskis 21-yard field goal that put the Patriots up for good at 17-16.
Then, defensive end Mark Anderson, subbing for Andre Carter, who seriously 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 celebrated his eighth career touchdown with a masterful spike.
I dont get in the end zone very often, Brady said. Maybe once a season. So, when I do I get pretty excited.
The Broncos bumbling ways which included a bad snap on an extra point attempt continued when punt returner Quan Cosby tried to field a punt on the run and muffed it with three seconds left in the second quarter.
Dane Fletcher recovered for New England, and Gostkowski trotted out for a 34-yard field goal to make it 27-16 at halftime.
Tebows 2-yard keeper with 8:41 left pulled the Broncos to 34-23 and had the crowd thinking comeback again, but Brady led the Patriots on another 80-yard scoring drive, this one culminating in BenJarvus Green-Ellis 1-yard touchdown run.
The more we fight, the better this team gets, defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. We knew they were going to come out fighting. They were going to come out fast and explosive. Our main goal was to weather the storm.