DENVER - Not this time, Tim Tebow.
Not with Tom Brady on hand.
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 Broncos yesterday.
"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, Denver started fast and then fizzled. The Broncos scored on their first three possessions but were done in by three turnovers in the final 8 1/2 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.
"We showed today that we're not ready to go to the playoffs and make a push," Bailey said. "We've got to get better and we only have 2 or 3 weeks to do it. If we don't, then we'll be sitting home."
For a sixth straight season.
With their first loss since Oct. 30, the AFC West-leading Broncos travel to Buffalo next week followed by a season finale against Kansas City, which ended Green Bay's 19-game winning streak yesterday behind Kyle Orton, who Tebow replaced in Denver.
Tebow, now 7-2 as Denver's starter, threw for 194 yards and ran for 93 yards and two scores but was sacked four times, including a 28-yard loss in the fourth quarter.
"I thought he improved," coach John Fox said. "He'll continue to improve. This was a setback, no doubt about that, but sometimes setbacks are setups for bigger things to come."
After all, the last time Tebow lost, to Detroit on Oct. 30, he was put on notice that his starting job was a week-to-week proposition, and Tebow won his next six starts.
Asked if Tebow & Co. can keep up with the league's top passers if they make the playoffs, Fox said: "I can't predict that. Six or 7 weeks ago, people said he couldn't hit the broad side of a barn. He does that. I don't think that was why we lost the game tonight."
"He's still the best out there, in my opinion," Bailey said. "And you make mistakes against a guy like that, he's going to make you pay. That's pretty much what happened all day."