DENVER -- Here's the thing the Denver Broncos learned about magic Sunday afternoon at Sports Authority Field: It just doesn't work as well in a three-score game.
You can't blame this one on Tim Tebow. He wasn't the reason the red-hot Broncos finally fell to earth here in their eagerly anticipated and much ballyhooed showdown with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
To be sure, Tebow wasn't completely an innocent bystander in the first game lost by Denver since that Week 8 meltdown at home against Detroit. He had a left hand in it. But if you're looking for reasons why that patented Tebow magic pulled a disappearing act and failed to translate into another Broncos victory, start with those three Denver fumbles in a nine-play span of the second quarter (one of which was committed by Tebow), and then proceed onward to the topic of how the Broncos' heretofore stout defense allowed a string of 27 unanswered points in the middle two quarters.
This was not a case of Denver's formula for victory being exposed or invalidated, and the Broncos' surprising success being proven a mirage. This was more like a game that started extremely well for Denver, with the Broncos racing to a 16-7 lead early in second quarter, and then sloppily slipped through their fingers.
Remember the various caveats about Denver's Tebow-led offense not being built to surmount sizable deficits? They all rang true against the high-powered Patriots, who ran out to an 18-point lead over the Broncos, and then kept Denver's defense back on its heels for most of the second half. The Tebow Effect never really took hold, because for once there just wasn't enough oxygen in the thin air to start that fire.
"The turnovers were really the big difference,'' Denver head coach John Fox said. "You're not going to be minus-three (in turnover ratio) against the New England Patriots and win very many ballgames. Having played them very many times, I know that to be true. Our guys fought, and we tried to get back into it. But the reality is, we're not at the stage where where can overcome minus-three (in turnovers).''
Denver's six consecutive wins coming into the game, and its 7-1 streak once Tebow was installed as the team's starter, were all victories of the same sort. The Broncos ran the ball well, played tight defense, and kept the game close until Tebow Time arrived. Usually with spectacular results and mind-boggling consistency.
But not this time. This time Denver jumped out to that 16-7 lead, scoring on each of its first three possessions. With the Broncos seemingly in command, and New England's defense on the ropes and unable to stop the Denver running game, here came the three mistakes that turned the tide of the game: a fumble by Broncos reserve running back Lance Ball, which led to a New England field goal; a strip sack of Tebow and fumble recovery by Patriots defensive end Mark Anderson, which led to a Patriots touchdown; and a brain-cramp muff of a New England punt by returner Quan Cosby in the final seconds of the first half, giving the Patriots another gift three points.
Suddenly it was 27-16 New England at the break, the game's momentum had shifted to the visitors, and it was the Denver defense that looked as if it had lost its way. The Broncos did a fine job limiting the damage done by New England's touchdown machine of a tight end, Rob Gronkowski, but they forgot to account for the equally gifted Aaron Hernandez, who racked up a game-best nine catches for 129 yards and a touchdown, often roaming free in the Denver secondary.
The Broncos know they had their chances early, and let the Patriots off the hook. They churned out 218 yards of offense in the first quarter alone, but managed just 175 more the rest of the game. Denver ran for a whopping 167 yards in the first quarter -- its most in the opening quarter since 1992 -- but then finished with just 85 more, for a total of 252. Against most teams, that would have been enough. Against the Patriots, it turned out to be a blueprint for disaster once the turnovers let New England back into the game.
"We did have things going pretty well early,'' Tebow said. "We scored on our first three possessions, but then we put the ball on the ground, and that's something you can't do against a great team.
"You know Brady is going to make his plays. We've got to hang onto the ball. That's my fault, and I'll get that straight. With the turnovers, we were playing from behind a little bit.''
A little bit more than the Broncos are used to, and a little bit more than they could afford when trying to take a step up in weight class against a team like New England (11-3), which clinched its third straight AFC East title and ninth of the team's Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era. The Patriots showed the way to quell Tebowmania is to build a fourth-quarter lead (it was 34-16 at the start of the final 15 minutes) even too big for No. 15's defeat-defying skills.
The irony is, Tebow had one of his best passing days yet against New England's 32nd-ranked defense, with its porous pass coverage. He finished 11 of 22 for 194 yards, but looked comfortable throwing the ball, made several impressively accurate downfield passes, and finished with a solid if unspectacular 80.5 passer rating. Throw in his team-high 93 yards rushing on 12 carries, with two touchdown runs, and Tebow's impact was not inconsequential. His improvement in the passing game is obvious, even if Fox inadvertenty offered a rather back-handed compliment of his quarterback in the postgame.
"He's gotten better every week,'' Fox said. "Six or seven weeks ago people said that he couldn't hit the broad side of a barn, but I think he does that. I think he can do that. I don't think that's why we lost the game tonight.''
With the possible exception of his performance two weeks ago against the Vikings in a win at Minnesota, Tebow's passing was his best of the season in terms of stretching the field consistently and making the Patriots defend every quadrant of the field. He acknowledged that part of his game is coming together.
"I feel like we've gotten better throwing the ball,'' Tebow said. "We were able to do a lot of what we wanted to early, throwing the ball. We were right in groove, and we were able to do some good things. Then we got behind and were pressing a little bit.''
They were pressing because they were behind by two and three scores at a time to Brady and Co. And that's not how Denver is going to succeed this season, falling that far off the lead. Tebow is not ready, and Denver's passing game is not equipped to win a shootout with Brady. The Broncos managed it for a quarter or so, reeling off seven plays of at least 19 yards on their first three drives, but Denver couldn't keep it up, and the turnovers limited it to just nine offensive plays in the second quarter.
"For the most part when we held onto the ball, we were able to move the ball,'' Tebow said. "So that was a good sign.''
Here's another good sign if you're the Broncos: Sunday's loss was in no way damaging to Denver's division title hopes. With Oakland (7-7) blowing a fourth-quarter lead and losing 28-27 at home to Detroit, the Broncos (8-6) still lead the Raiders by one full game, plus hold tiebreaker advantages in terms of division record (3-2 to 2-2), and conference record (6-4 to 5-5). Denver would like to win next week at Buffalo, but if it doesn't, it could still earn its first playoff berth since 2005 by beating Kansas City at home in Week 17. The Raiders have to win two in a row and pull for the Chiefs at Denver.
So, from that vantage point, even finding out that they're not in the AFC elite class just yet doesn't sting as much as it might have if the Broncos had desperately needed the win. Denver hung in with New England for a while on Sunday, but Tebow learned anew that he needs a good defense and a closer game to make the Broncos game plan work.
"This was a setback, no doubt about it,'' Fox said. "But sometimes setbacks are setups for bigger things to come. That's the way we'll approach it.''
In Denver, the approach that has worked wonders since mid-October failed this time. But don't cry for Tim Tebow and the Broncos. The magic went missing against New England. But you can't say Tebow did.