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Dan Shaughnessy

Powerful forces at work?

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / December 18, 2011
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DENVER - Holy cow. Holy Toledo. Holy smokes. Holy water. Holy holiday. Holy Any Given Sunday of Obligation.

The Patriots are playing the Broncos this afternoon at Sports Authority Field at Mile High and it’s the biggest thing to happen in Denver since Papa Jack Weil invented the snap-button Western shirt.

We didn’t see this coming when the Patriots’ schedule was released. Nobody circled Dec. 18 and said it was going to be the sports TV event of the year, maybe the latest, greatest NFL Game of the Century.

But what we have here today is downright biblical. In an effort to win their sixth straight game, lock up another division title, and make more strides toward a first-round playoff bye, the Patriots are suddenly face to face with the supernatural powers of Denver quarterback Tim Tebow.

Has there ever been anything like this in the NFL?

No. There has not.

Tebow, a proud and prominent evangelical Christian with an ugly-but-effective toolbox of quarterbacking skills, has taken the NFL by hailstorm. Since becoming the starter (an inadvertent promotion when the 1-4 Broncos gave up on Kyle Orton), Tebow has led the Broncos to seven wins in eight games, most of them preposterous comebacks, straining all NFL logic.

Football analysts across the land have been pulling hamstrings backpedaling to amend their definitive pronouncements that Tebow would never amount to anything as an NFL quarterback. Certainly anyone who watched last week’s miraculous win over the Bears (the Broncos trailed, 10-0, with 2:15 remaining) became a believer.

And it’s all about belief when it comes to Tebow. He’s the son of Baptist missionaries. He appeared with his mother on a Focus on the Family, pro-life TV ad when he was a senior at Florida. He stenciled “John 3:16’’ on his eye black when Florida beat Oklahoma for the 2008 championship, prompting an NCAA rule banning cheekbone messages. Training a generation to genuflect, he’s made his name a verb (“I Tebow, you Tebow, he-she-it Tebows’’) and it’s been suggested that he can turn Gatorade into wine. He is the Mile High Messiah. There are more than a few No. 15 Broncos jerseys bearing the name “Jesus.’’

This makes Tebow the proverbial polarizing figure. His fame even extended to the Republican presidential debates when Rick Perry said, “I hope I am the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses.’’

Big-time professional sports and public displays of faith make for an odd mix. It’s common for successful Christian athletes to credit their maker when good things happen, but no one seems to be able to explain why God would like the Broncos more than the Bears. I happen to know for a fact that God loves the Patriots, maybe even more than CBS loves the Patriots.

In more than three decades of sports reporting, I’ve learned to flee when folks start crediting or blaming God for things that happen in games. Maybe it’s the lasting memory of a Globe photographer who inadvertently stumbled into a phony Red Sox Sunday morning chapel meeting in the 1980s and was greeted by an angry veteran who barked, “Get the [expletive] out of here! Can’t you see we’re having our [expletive] prayer meeting?’’

Tebow’s stunning success on the field has put the issue on America’s 50-yard line. Tebowmania prompted my boss to assign veteran scribe John Powers to sculpt a face-page feature outlining Tebow’s playing style and spiritual beliefs. To the best of my knowledge, it’s the first time we’ve quoted the president of American Atheists in our sports section.

The inimitable Tony Kornheiser on Friday said, “Tim Tebow is the most compelling athlete in America.’’

Amen.

Tebow’s on the cover of the current Sports Illustrated, which has a sub-headline that reads, “Amazing, Incredible, Phenomenal, Incomprehensible, Mind-Blowing, Unbelievable . . . ’’ In the accompanying article, Bears general manager Jerry Angelo says, “I believe there is some divine intervention associated with what’s taking place.’’

And that’s what he said before the game.

Yikes. How’s Vince Wilfork supposed to compete with that?

It needs to be said that Tebow regularly credits his teammates as well as the supreme being in the Mile High Sky. He’s big, he’s tough, and he’s a leader. A quarterback in the NFL has to win his locker room before he starts winning games. Tebow has won the Broncos’ locker room. Even with his bosses (including coach John Fox and executive vice president/legend John Elway) rooting against him in the beginning.

All that said, the Patriots are 7 1/2-point favorites and we know that Bill Belichick loves the challenge of stopping an old-school southpaw quarterback with bad footwork and a goofy release (anybody remember Joe Kapp?). The Patriots know Tebow can run, and they know he doesn’t turn the ball over. They know they’ll have to stay at home on defense.

“We’ll have to play disciplined against an offense we’re really not familiar with,’’ said Belichick.

I say Bill is loving this. I bet game planning for Tebow reminds him of being a kid, sitting by his dad, watching film, getting ready for Navy-Syracuse.

Bob Kraft went to the wall (and the CBS Scene) to make sure this game would not be flexed to tonight.

Good.

It’s going to be hard enough to wait until 4:15.

That’s 2:15 Mountain time - where it’s always Tebow time.

Praise the Lord and pass the cheese doodles.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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