Ardent supporters of Tim Tebow were dealt a setback on Saturday as the Denver Broncos were blown out by the New England Patriots in the AFC Divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., 45-10.
Denver's star quarterback completed just nine passes on 26 attempts. More importantly, the Broncos' defense couldn't keep Denver in the game as they had for a good portion of the regular season.
New England's Tom Brady simply picked apart the Denver defense, as the Pro Bowl quarterback threw for six touchdown passes in a win that seemed secured in the opening minutes.
Still, it was a surprising run for the Broncos in both the regular season and the playoffs, following the win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wild card game. Like the Seahawks in the 2010 season, few predicted that the team would advance to the playoffs, let alone defeat a high-profile contender.
It was Tebow who was generally bestowed the credit for Denver's turnaround season -- whether he wanted it or deserved it. The former Heisman Trophy winner became a lightning rod for debate on ESPN and talk radio for being the anointed savior of the Broncos' season.
When Denver defeated the Steelers on Jan. 8, there were many critics and fans who decided to forgive Tebow's inability to consistently throw an accurate pass, and instead focus on the other aspects of his game that led Denver deep into the postseason. Some cited his abilty to avoid pressure and run for first downs, while others felt the Broncos benefited from Tebow's motivated spirit.
It became difficult for football purists to explain that Tebow's success was more an example of an improbable run against flawed opponents than Tebow providing magical plays based on his talent.
ESPN's Skip Bayless, who has almost manically supported Tebow this season, looked desperate on First Take when others pointed out Tebow's flaws.
I'm the only [Tebow] defender all year, Bayless shouted above the roundtable that were debating whether Tebow was a bust.
When the Broncos drafted Tebow in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft, many experts questioned the wisdom of using that pick on a quarterback who didn't seem to fit in the pro game. At the University of Florida, Tebow played a very college-style game, and his ability to play in an NFL offense was very much in doubt.
Though there were extensive efforts to help transition Tebow to a prototypical NFL quarterback by retooling his mechanics, Tebow seemed to revert to his unorthodox throwing style and often failed to grasp how to handle opposing blitzes.
Against the Patriots in a regular-season game in December, the Broncos were faced with a fourth down and 17-yard situation in the fourth quarter, and Tebow was forced to scamper away from tacklers and instead of throwing the ball away, he took a 29-yard sack.
Tebow's passing statistics were not exactly encouraging either. The second-year quarterback completed just 46.5 percent of his throws, and only had a 72.9 passer rating. To put that into perspective, for all of the discussion about Tebow, he was ranked 28th in the NFL in passer rating, and helped led his team to a .500 record.
There was apprehension from the Broncos' coaching staff when it came to naming Tebow the team's starter. Head coach John Fox caved in to fans' pressure by pulling early-season starter Kyle Orton for Tebow, in Week Five against San Diego. There was a billboard lobbying for Tebow to start, and Denver fans often chanted We Want Tebow during games.
The Denver offense had to adjust to a completely different quarterback, and were able to rack up wins in a collection of very tight games. Running back Willis McGahee rushed for 1,199 on the season, and the defense began to click behind the best ground game in the NFL.
With Tebow as the starter, Denver won seven of eight games, and many of them came down to the wire, with Tebow helping to lead the late charge. Of the seven victories, three were in overtime and the three other wins were by a margin of seven points or less.
When the Broncos lost it was ugly. Of Tebow's four losses as a starter, three were blowout defeats. The only loss that wasn't by more than 17 points was a 7-3 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the last game of the season. Had the Oakland Raiders not faltered in their final home game, Denver would have missed the postseason.
The legend of Tebow continued into the playoffs as the Steelers' defense was completely surprised to see Tebow throw, and consequently got burned on an 80-yard touchdown strike to lose the game on the first play of overtime.
As if Tebow's Christian faith wasn't a big enough topic due to his famous Tebowing pose, many bored pundits openly discussed the fact that Tebow's passing yardage in the playoff game was 316, which they absurdly connected to the Bible passage, John 3:16.
Religion and politics don't mix well with sports, and Tebow was mixed into a situation where his faith and virginity became hot Internet topics, which caused the Tebow debate to become more convoluted.
After 14 career NFL starts, Tebow's status as a legitimate NFL quarterback is far more clear than it was when he was drafted, but he certainly seems like a work in progress.
With John Elway playing a major role in the organization, there will be additional scrutiny on Tebow. There is still plenty of opportunity for the 24-year-old to improve and build off the experience and the gains he made in 2011.
Tebow has a great deal of determination, and has shown that he wants to be the leader of the team.
The 2012 season may not be make or break for Tebow, but his success or failure over 16 games would probably be enough for people to offer a more accurate opinion of him. The coaching staff will likely put together a squad that is more tailored around Tebow's talents and there will probably be less games that go down to the wire to suspend pointless discussion over his heroics.
In other words, Tebow should continue to be a contentious quarterback next season, but also a more understood one.