FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — There may have been a time – in the middle of the week, in the hours before kickoff, even early in the second quarter, though that’s a stretch – when it seemed feasible that Tim Tebow and his Denver Broncos could have beaten Tom Brady and his New England Patriots. Talk of karma and religion and all sorts of elements that have little to do with football filled the icy air, and with a week between playoff games, there are hours to kill and storylines to hype.
Then this AFC divisional playoff game started. Less than two minutes in, the Patriots were up by a touchdown. Less than six minutes later, they were up by two. Over the final two-and-a-half minutes of a freakishly good first half, they scored two more to go up by 28 points.
All that pregame dissection of Tebow’s throwing motion and Tebow’s beliefs and Tebow’s leadership and Tebow’s deficiencies seemed downright silly, because the vastly superior player, Brady, and the clearly superior team, New England, won in a never-in-doubt romp, 45-10, in which Brady tied an NFL playoff record with six touchdown passes.
“I think, as a team, we were looking for this all year,” defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. “What a great time to put it all together.”
So take a moment to give Tebow his due, put his season to rest, and wonder about his future later. Take several moments, though, to appreciate what Brady did before a Gillette Stadium crowd of 68,756, whose applause was muffled only by ski gloves. He threw five touchdown passes in the first half alone. Three of those went to superhuman tight end Rob Gronkowski, who hauled in 10 balls for 145 yards and tied the mark for receiving scores in a playoff game.
Overall, Brady hit on 26 of his 34 throws, including all three he threw on the Patriots’ opening touchdown drive, and all five he threw on the back-breaking final touchdown drive of the first half, which took all of 64 seconds.
“I’ve seen him like this,” said wide receiver Deion Branch, whose 61-yard touchdown reception from Brady put New England up 28-7. “But hopefully, that’s not the best he’ll be.”
When his night was done, Brady had racked up 363 yards, a new franchise postseason record, and the Patriots had scored more points than in any of the other 36 playoff games in their history. More importantly, Brady and the Patriots won their first postseason game since Jan. 20, 2008, the AFC Championship Game against San Diego. Since then, they were upset in Super Bowl XLII by the New York Giants, lost a home playoff game to Baltimore following the 2009 season, and lost a home playoff game to the New York Jets following the 2010 season.
“It’s all about winning,” Brady said. “You lose a few playoff games, it’s a very bitter way to end a season. It sits on your mind for quite a long time.”
They rinsed it out Saturday night. New England easily earned the right to host the winner of Sunday’s Baltimore-Houston game for the AFC title. Brady now has more playoff victories with one team, 15, than any quarterback in history. Win next week, and advance to his fifth Super Bowl, and he’ll tie Joe Montana for the most postseason wins of all-time.
Tebow’s oddball season — at times inspirational, at times baffling — thus came to an ignominious close. In the third quarter, with the Patriots up 42-7, the Foxborough faithful mockingly chanted his name in sing-song ridicule, “Teeee-bow! Teee-bow!” He had no response. He completed 9 of 26 passes for 136 yards, ran five times for 13 more yards. Other than when Brady made his one slip-up — an interception in New England territory late in the first quarter — Tebow seemed to have no hope of leading the Broncos to the end zone. Through three quarters, he had as many completions as he did sacks taken — five.
When these two teams met on Dec. 18, a 41-23 New England victory, the Broncos surged to an early lead because New England’s suspect defense, ranked 31st in the league, couldn’t stop the run. But the Patriots took control on Saturday, on both sides of the ball, with a we’ll-try-anything flair. In the previous meeting, the Broncos gained 167 yards rushing — in the first quarter. Saturday, they had 144 for the game, two fewer than New England. The Patriots even used tight end Aaron Hernandez in the backfield. On their fourth play from scrimmage, he took a handoff and rumbled for 43 yards, and he ended the night as New England’s leading rusher.
When it was all but over, Brady even signaled its finality by punting, a development that led to a skirmish on the sideline. Brady calmly walked off. The only other men to throw six touchdown passes in a postseason game were Oakland’s Daryle Lamonica against Houston in 1969 and San Francisco’s Steve Young in Super Bowl XXIX, following the 1994 season. Brady had a new accomplishment.
“He’s first and foremost,” Wilfork said. “When he plays well, everyone else plays well.”
But the tradition around here, where three Super Bowl trophies reside, dictates that all those individual storylines don’t matter much.
“I think that everyone focused on one player,” Brady said. “I think all week we were focused on the entire Denver Broncos team.”
With that, Tom Brady’s season marched on, and Tim Tebow’s season came to a close.