• Technically, the standings say the Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders are tied for the lead in the AFC West, with identical 7-5 records entering the final four weeks. But don't believe it. At this point, I think we all can see where this story is headed.
The Tim Tebow-led Broncos are going to the playoffs. Could it possibly turn out any other way this season in Denver, where fantastic finishes have suddenly become the norm and the implausible is almost routine? The Broncos and Tebow simply will not be denied in this magical second half run they have going, and that will lead inevitably to finding their way, somehow, into the postseason for the first time since 2005.
The latest bit of Tebow magic occurred Sunday in Minnesota, and this time it wasn't the Denver defense and running game that got the short end of things in terms of credit. The Broncos defense made some huge plays in Denver's dramatic 35-32 comeback win, and its running game churned out 150 critical yards. But Tebow's left arm was the difference-maker in this one, and his best passing touch of the season accounted for his 2011-high 202 yards on 10 of 15 attempts, with two touchdowns, no interceptions and a gaudy 149.3 passer rating.
With Tebow taking Denver's passing game to new heights, the Broncos won their fifth in a row and improved to 6-1 since Tebow replaced Kyle Orton in the starting lineup. But even more remarkably, the Broncos have won five consecutive on the road under Tebow, their longest road win streak since their second consecutive Super Bowl of 1998. Denver's current football czar, John Elway, was in his 16th and final season that year.
The Broncos and Raiders split their two-game season series this year, but Denver actually holds the head-to-head tiebreaker over Oakland at the moment, courtesy of a better conference record (the Broncos are 6-3 in AFC games, the Raiders 5-5). And the rest of the schedule favors Denver as well, with the Broncos playing at home in three of their last four games, while Oakland has two more road games remaining.
By this time next week, I expect Denver will be in sole possession of first place in the AFC West and starting to pull away from Oakland. The Broncos draw a visit from the struggling, quarterback-needy Bears (7-5) next week, while the Raiders face a trip to Lambeau Field and the challenge of playing the defending Super Bowl champion Packers. Denver then stays home to face New England, travels to Buffalo (5-7) in Week 16, and concludes at home against Kansas City (5-7). By comparison, the Raiders after leaving Green Bay come home to play Detroit (7-4), travel to Kansas City, and finish the season at home against San Diego (4-7).
That's advantage Denver in my book, and the momentum just keeps building on a Broncos team that seems to create new ways to win every week. Denver should be favored in all but the game against the Patriots, and a 10-6 record will almost certainly be enough to deliver a division title to John Fox's untraditional team. Who would have dreamed that possible when Denver started 1-4 and then inserted Tebow into the lineup in Week 7, almost through gritted teeth?
As for the Raiders, I suspect they know what they're up against by now. For more than a month, every time the Raiders have looked back, they've seen Denver in their rear-view mirror, led by the miracle-making Tebow. The Broncos are playing like the playoffs are foreordained, while Oakland now must resort to just hanging on in the season's second half.
The Raiders fell behind 34-0 at Miami on Sunday, then scored two touchdowns late to make it a semi-respectable 34-14 loss to the red-hot Dolphins. But every trend appears headed Denver's way, and karma is suddenly not on Oakland's side.
Tebow Time come playoff time? Get ready for it. It's on its way, and won't be stopped.
• Not only did Tebow look like a full-fledged quarterback in most every way against the Vikings, dropping in touch passes and rushing just four times for 13 yards, but also he now has more receiving weapons than just second-year veteran Eric Decker. What a breakout game turned in by second-year receiver Demaryius Thomas, who caught four passes for 144 yards (36.0 average) and two touchdowns.
Thomas has rare gifts, but he has struggled to stay healthy early in his NFL career. On Sunday we saw the smooth, 6-3, 235-pound target who prompted Denver to spend the 22nd overall pick on him in the 2010 draft, just a few slots ahead of Tebow. Coming into the game, Thomas had just 29 career catches for 386 yards and three touchdowns in 16 games. But those numbers spiked dramatically thanks to his boffo showing in the Metrodome. With Decker and Thomas now clicking, the Broncos passing game won't necessarily take a backseat to the running game any more.
• Tebow's latest masterpiece served to overshadow the great game turned in by Vikings rookie quarterback Christian Ponder, who set a franchise rookie record with 381 yards passing. Ponder really has a great rapport building with third-year receiver Percy Harvin, who caught eight passes for 156 yards and two touchdowns. Harvin has caught a touchdown in each of the past three games, and all four of his scores this season have come in that same span.
• As well as the Dolphins are playing, the idea of Tony Sparano saving his job with this strong second-half run is starting to sound at least possible. The Dolphins are 4-8 and have won four out of five, with the narrow loss to Dallas on Thanksgiving the only blemish. They've outscored their past five opponents by a combined 139-54, losing by a single point against the Cowboys. If they finish at least 7-9, could you possibly fire Sparano when he ended the year on a 7-2 hot streak? I'm starting to think you might get a pretty good argument on that one.
• Any minute now, I expect Wade Phillips to go down with a strained oblique muscle, or maybe a hip flexor. It's gotten that contagious in terms of injuries in Houston. The Texans have to be asking themselves what else can go wrong after watching receiver Andre Johnson pull up with another hamstring injury, this one involving his left leg. The next good break the Texans get on the injury front might be the first one they've gotten all season.
As we said last week, Houston is going to make the playoffs, and Sunday's gutty 17-10 win over Atlanta all but assured that. But given the Texans' multi-faceted health issues, it's difficult to see them making any real noise once they get there.
• The Bucs were forced to start backup quarterback Josh Johnson against Carolina, but that's still no excuse for them to get blown out at home by the four-win Panthers. Raheem Morris's Tampa Bay team didn't help stabilize his shaky job status whatsoever with that 38-19 loss, in a game that really wasn't even that close.
Morris has a contract with just one more year remaining on it, and it's likely that he's now coaching for his job in the final four weeks of the season. Last year's 10-6 finish perhaps raised expectations unduly high, but the Bucs did start 4-2 this season before seeing the campaign ruined by their current six-game losing streak. That falls on Morris for letting things unravel this year in Tampa Bay.
• Without even so much as a sideline for Donovan McNabb to stand on Sunday, I wonder what he did on his first completely NFL-less game day since 1998? I know this much: Maybe the Bears should have been interested enough in McNabb to claim him off waivers, or sign him once he cleared waivers unclaimed. Caleb Hanie is not keeping the train running in Jay Cutler's absence, as Sunday's 10-3 home loss to anemic Kansas City so vividly illustrated.
The Bears could have lived with another three interceptions from Hanie again this week if he had thrown a couple touchdown passes, as he did last week in the loss at Oakland. But Hanie couldn't even manage one scoring pass, although he did deserve much better on that fourth-quarter interception by Chiefs safety Jon McGraw, because the ball bounced off Roy Williams' hands.
Not that it really matters in Chicago at this point, at least if running back Matt Forte misses any significant time with a reported torn MCL. If Forte is gone for long, the Bears season is all but over anyway.
• The Jets scratched and clawed their way to another win, this time at Washington, but how about New York's once-proud special teams? When rookie punt returner Jeremy Kerley muffed a punt against the Redskins, it marked the fourth consecutive week the Jets had a turnover on special teams. New York has fumbled seven times on either punt or kickoff returns this season, which makes the Jets this year's version of last year's Chargers, who ruined their season due to special teams disasters.
• Nice week for Ndamukong Suh, eh? Between the league suspension and the one-car crash he was involved in early Saturday morning in downtown Portland, Ore., losing control seems to be a theme of sorts lately for the Lions' newsy defensive tackle. And there's something about the car crash story that doesn't entirely add up. Suh just lost control of the car he was driving, but wasn't impaired in any way despite being out and downtown in the early morning hours? Why do I think there's more to this story than we've heard so far?
• With three wins in their past four games, the Seahawks (5-7) are at least building some momentum for 2012. And to think the Seahawks would be in the NFC wild-card race had they been able to protect a 10-point lead at home against Washington last week.
I'm still convinced Pete Carroll drafts his next starting quarterback in April, but Seattle has clearly won its way out of the Matt Barkley Sweepstakes. If Barkley does declare for the draft, he'll never last into Seattle's neighborhood in the first round.
• Maybe nobody in the NFL is putting together a salary drive quite like Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, who shredded Philadelphia's defense for 148 yards and a pair of first-half touchdowns in Seattle's 31-14 win Thursday night. That was Lynch's second-highest career rushing total, and his biggest game in four years. A free agent to be, Lynch now has 100-yard rushing days in four out of his past five games, and has scored a touchdown in eight straight games.
• Well, better late than never, Chris Johnson. The Titans superstar running back has looked like a superstar again the past two weeks, and his 153-yard, two-touchdown effort in a 23-17 win at Buffalo really gives Tennessee's playoffs hopes a big boost. As did the losses suffered this week by Oakland and Cincinnati, two 7-5 teams that the 7-5 Titans just pulled even with.
Johnson had his season-long rush in the first half, scoring from 48 yards out, and later added a four-yard touchdown run that allowed him to double his season touchdown total in one afternoon. It was CJ's first multi-TD game since October 2010, and Johnson went over the 100-yard mark in the first half alone. With 852 yards rushing and four games remaining this season, Johnson should easily surpass the 1,000-yard mark for the fourth consecutive season.
• You would have thought the faux pas by Texans cornerback Glover Quin last year against Jacksonville taught everyone a lesson of what not to do on a Hail Mary pass, but apparently not. Chicago middle linebacker Brian Urlacher on Sunday made the same mistake Quin made, failing to knock the pass straight down, and instead deflected it right to trailing Chiefs running back Dexter McCluster, who caught it for the game-deciding points in Kansas City's 10-3 upset of the Bears.
Those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to, you know, not make the playoffs.
• Move over, Steve Grogan. Cam Newton just erased your most well-known entry in the NFL record book with his 11th, 12th and 13th rushing touchdowns of the season. The Carolina rookie found the end zone three times against the back-pedaling Bucs defense, and the last of those broke Grogan's mark of 12 from 1976, when he was in just his second season in New England.
Grogan set that mark in a 14-game regular season, but Newton just broke it in 12 games, so no asterisk needed.
• I'm not sure New England drafted tight end Rob Gronkowski last year thinking he'd be a scoring machine, but that's what he is. With two more touchdown catches in the Patriots' somewhat deceiving 31-24 win over winless Indianapolis, Gronkowski has tied the league record for most scoring receptions by a tight end in a season, with 13 (San Diego's Antonio Gates and San Francisco's Vernon Davis also hold a slice of the mark). Gronkowski appeared to have a third touchdown catch against the Colts, but it was later ruled a lateral and kept him tied for the record.
Gronkowski now has scored 24 touchdowns in his first 27 career regular season games, and that pace is unheard of for a tight end.
• I know there were some garbage-time passing yards in there, but if Colts quarterback Dan Orlovsky can complete 30 of 37 for 353 yards and two touchdowns against the likes of Jacksonville, Tennessee or even QB-depleted Houston in the final three weeks of the season, Indianapolis may well win a game or two this season after all.
In any event, I think it's safe to assume we've seen the last of Curtis Painter under center in Indy in 2011.