|New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) reacts after scoring a touchdown against the Denver Broncos in the second quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2011, in Denver. (AP Photo/Barry Gutierrez)|
Brady, Pats slow down Tebow, Broncos 41-23
DENVER—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 Tebow's 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 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 fast and then fizzled.
They scored on their first three possessions and then were done in by a trio of turnovers in the final 8 1/2 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. "That's something you can't 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 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.
"We showed today that we're not ready to go to the playoffs and make a push," Bailey said. "We've got to get better and we only have two or three weeks to do it. If we don't, then we'll be sitting home."
For a sixth straight 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 Bay's 19-game winning streak Sunday behind Kyle Orton, the player Tebow replaced in Denver.
"I definitely feel like we're all right," said Tebow, now 7-2 as Denver's 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. "He'll 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 won his next six starts.
The one thing Tebow and the Broncos haven't been able to do is keep up with the league's elite passers. Denver has faced four QBs 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.
Asked if Tebow & Co. can keep up with the league's top passers if they make it into the playoffs, Fox said: "I can't predict that. He's gotten better every week. Six or seven weeks ago, people said he couldn't hit the broad side of a barn. He does that. I think he can do that. I don't think that was why we lost the game tonight."
"He's still the best out there, in my opinion," Bailey said. "And you make mistakes against a guy like that, he's going to make you pay. That's 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 can't 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 can't play like that and expect to get wins."
Brady was 23 of 34, including his first scoring toss to Chad Ochocinco. His TD 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 TD 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 TD in the NFL on a beautiful 32-yard scamper, fumbled at his own 19 and linebacker Rob 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 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 TD with a masterful spike.
"I don't 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.
Dane Fletcher recovered for New England and Gostkowski trotted out for a 34-yard field goal to make it 27-16 at halftime.
Tebow's 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 TD 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."
Notes: The Patriots qualified for the playoffs for the 13th time since Robert Kraft bought the team in 1994. ... The Broncos haven't won seven straight since 1998. ... New England hadn't won in Denver since 2003. ... Brady's last TD run was Nov. 14, 2010, at Pittsburgh.
Connect with AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton