Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos faced an uphill challenge when they played red-hot Tom Brady and the New England Patriots on Sunday. They proved unable to muster the same late surge seen in pervious weeks, and fell 41-23 at home. As AP reported:

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 8½ 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.

For fans of Tebow, the game produced all that is best and worst about the young quarterback. While the Broncos lost on Sunday, they still seem confident about their playoff prospects. As Matt Brooks reported :

Whatever your position on Tim Tebow, Sunday’s Patriots-Broncos game delivered both positive and negative signs for Denver’s prospects for the postseason and beyond.

There was Tebow’s vintage touchdown run through the arms of three would-be tacklers that opened the scoring and gave the Broncos’ faithful a spark rarely seen before the fourth quarter in recent weeks.

And then there was the 28-yard run toward his own end zone that resulted in a soul-crushing sack and left Tebow haters cackling all the way to the final whistle. (I watched the game with a few Patriots fans, and I can assure you there was quite a bit of cackling.)

New England won 41-23, and at least for one week, Broncos fans were forced to recall the taste of defeat.

But if you expected the Tebow and company to come out after the game doubting the formula that’s made them the talk of the NFL over the last night weeks, well... you haven’t been paying attention.

“He’s gotten better every week,” Broncos coach John Fox said of his quarterback. “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’s why we lost the game tonight.”

The signs of improvement are evident: Tebow completed 50 percent of his passes for the fourth straight week, finished with 194 yards through the air and did not throw an interception. But he failed to throw a touchdown pass, took four sacks and lost a fumble for the third consecutive week — trends that will make it difficult for Denver to keep pace with high-octane offenses. In five games against top-10 passers this season, the Broncos are only 1-4.

Denver maintained a one-game edge over AFC West rivals Oakland and San Diego and closes the regular season with games against Buffalo and Kansas City. And with the way his season has gone so far, it shouldn’t surprise you that Tebow is still as confident as ever.

“I definitely fee like we’re all right,” he said.

Tebow’s second loss as a starter this season, and the end of the win streak that had propelled the Broncos into playoff contention have some questioning whether Tebowtime is over in Denver. As AP explained , it is too soon to count Tebow out:

It was, though it’s hard to blame Tebow for the loss Sunday that derailed — at least temporarily — the cultural phenomenon that was sweeping the country. Without Tom Brady running the New England offense with his usual cool efficiency, this game might have ended like the past half dozen, with Tebow scrambling and throwing his way to yet another fourth-quarter miracle win.

Coming back is one thing. Coming back against a quarterback that knows a little something about fourth-quarter dramatics himself is quite another.

The Patriots weren’t going to make the kind of mistakes that doomed other teams against Tebow in the fourth quarter. Bill Belichick wasn’t going to order Brady to hand the ball off to protect a lead only to have the strategy backfire.

The better quarterback played like the great quarterback he is. The better team won, just like they were supposed to.

There would be no Tebowtime this time.

There was, however, something about the way Tebow and the Denver offense played that — along with an Oakland Raiders loss — had to make the Broncos and their fans feel pretty good about themselves.

It sure didn’t get the relentlessly upbeat Tebow down — as if that was possible.

“There’s a lot of great things we can take out of this game,” Tebow said. “Every time there’s a setback there’s more of an opportunity for a new step up.”

Cliches, yes, but you get the idea Tebow believes them. And no one should question a quarterback who believes as much as he does.

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