MINNEAPOLIS -- She stood in grey UGG boots, with a long navy sweater and an orange scarf, watching as Tim Tebow slowed from a trot to a walk. As his Denver Broncos teammates sprinted to the locker room for final pregame preparations, Tebow pulled off his helmet, smiled a big smile and hugged his mom, Pam, then his dad, Bob, who wore a white hat with the No. 15 and "TEBOW" on it.
Tebow's parents don't travel to every game, but they were in Minneapolis on Sunday to witness and represent and support their son. Behind the undefeated Green Bay Packers, Tebow is the second-biggest story in the NFL, part phenomenon, part enigma, a too-good-to-be-true feel-good story in an era of negativity and anonymous hate.
Is he good? Is he bad? Does he just run? Can he throw? Does he always have to praise God? Can't he play football, and let that be that?
There have been polarizing religious figures in the NFL before, but none recently. The late Reggie White comes to mind. He was big and brash and, like Tebow, unafraid to preach his gospel, to give glory to God, whether it made his teammates or his fans or anybody else uncomfortable.
But this Tebow thing is so much more complicated than even just religion because we knew what White was. He was an unapologetic pass-rusher, the Minister of Defense. But what exactly is Tebow?
Well, for one, he is a winner. Tebow will never have Tom Brady's fluid throwing motion or Aaron Rodgers' vision or Drew Brees' accuracy, but Tebow has the same killer instinct those men possess. And although it isn't always pretty and it certainly isn't dominant, and probably won't last much past this year, Tebow is getting the results that matter right now.
With a 35-32 win at Minnesota on Sunday, Tebow led the Broncos to their sixth win in his seven starts. It was their fifth straight win when trailing entering the fourth quarter, and their fifth on the road.
The Broncos started the season 1-4, but they are 6-1 since the bye and with Tebow as their starter. And now, thanks to Miami blowing out Oakland on Sunday, they are atop the AFC West with four games to play.
It is unexpected and, fair or not, almost all attributable to Tebow.
"He's the comeback kid," said Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker. "That's what we call him. He brings this attitude about him that he's so positive and always optimistic. That does rub off on guys. To be able to consecutively do this on the road, at home and in the fourth quarter is great. If we have a chance to win, we're going to win."
To a man, the Broncos believe this. They can't explain the Tebow phenomenon, why he is having success despite such unorthodox mechanics. Backup wide receiver Demaryius Thomas said Denver's season changed when coach John Fox pivoted from Kyle Orton to Tebow during a Week 4 loss to San Diego. Thomas was on the sideline injured, and said that when Tebow went in the game, "I just felt a spark."
"The defense and the offense, everybody was playing," Thomas said. "I don't know what it was. It was like everything changed. The spirit and the excitement, everybody just changed. Everybody wanted it more."
After the bye, the Broncos beat Miami in overtime. They lost to Detroit 45-10, but then beat the Raiders in Oakland by 14 points, the Chiefs in Kansas City by seven and the Jets at home by four. Last week, Denver won at San Diego in overtime.
And now this.
Denver managed just one first down and 48 yards in the first half against Minnesota, but exploded for three touchdowns in the second half. Each time the Vikings went up eight points, the Broncos answered, pulling within 15-14, then 22-21 after Tebow stiff-armed Vikings linebacker Erin Henderson and found Thomas, who caught the ball and ran into the end zone for his second touchdown.
Minnesota scored again, and, after Denver pulled to 29-27, Fox went for the two-point conversion. The call was simple, and effective. Fake the inside handoff, with Tebow running into the end zone to tie the score.
The Vikings scored a field goal to take a 32-29 lead, and, with 3:06 left in the game, Tebow led Denver to its own field goal. With the score tied 32-32 with 96 seconds left in regulation, overtime seemed an inevitability, but, on the Vikings' first play on the ensuing drive, Christian Ponder threw a duck to Broncos cornerback Andre' Goodman at the Minnesota 35-yard line. Six plays later, Matt Prater drilled the winning field goal from 23 yards out.
It wasn't all Tebow, of course. The Broncos defense bent but didn't break. When it had to have a turnover, Goodman came up with it. Punter Britton Colquitt routinely pinned the Vikings deep in their own territory. The offensive line kept Tebow upright. Willis McGahee finished with 111 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries, and Thomas caught four passes for 144 yards and two touchdowns.
Nevertheless, Tebow is the story. His teammates get that, and, as long as they keep winning, no one will say a word. And it is tough to dislike Tebow. He is a tireless worker, upbeat, positive, confident, aggressive and, by all accounts, well-liked.
When I asked his mother whether I could talk to her about her son, she politely said, "It depends on the question. I try to stay out of the controversy."
Asked to define the controversy, Pam Tebow shrugged.
"How can I say this?" she said. "We would be proud of him if he was losing."
Even a 16-year NFL veteran and man of faith such as veteran Denver safety Brian Dawkins can't completely wrap his hands around the Tebow phenomenon.
"I can't explain it, why there's so much surrounding this one individual," Dawkins told me, long after the Broncos' locker room had cleared. "But I told him I'm happy to be involved in it, I really am."
Dawkins hears the criticisms of Tebow, for everything from his mechanics to his in-your-face faith, but he knows it doesn't bother Tebow, so it doesn't really bother anyone else inside the locker room.
"The bottom line is, he doesn't care what people say about him believing in what he believes and how he believes and giving God the glory, and I'm proud of him for that," Dawkins said. "Why should he back down? Just because people say he shouldn't do those things?"
"What other individual is doing what he's doing right now? I'm talking about the way this offense is run," Dawkins said. "People have not been afforded the chance to do that, and, for whatever reason, he's getting the chance and is taking advantage of it. He's continuing to give God the glory because He is the reason [Tebow's] getting the opportunity to do what he's doing."
As uncomfortable as it makes some people, Tebow's faith is part of the story here. It is undoubtedly the controversy his mother mentioned, and although it is not breaking news that Tebow believes in God, he now is preaching from a higher platform than he ever had at Florida, even as a Heisman Trophy winner and national champion.
"It's just on a grander scale because this is the NFL and now he's with the Denver Broncos, and we're on this run," Dawkins said.
Oh yes, the run. It continues. Improbable. Unexplainable. The Broncos don't care about the how and why. At this point, they are just trying to enjoy the ride.
What I learned from Week 13:
It's going to be an interesting MVP vote after all. Through Week 13, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are on pace to break Dan Marino's record for most passing yards in a season. Marino threw for 5,084 yards in 1984.
Brees fell 15 yards shy of tying Marino's record in 2008, but the Saints missed the playoff and Brees said later that the record would have been hollow for him. It undoubtedly would mean something this year, with the Saints atop the NFC South and holding the No. 3 seed in the conference.
Brees already has 4,031 yards. He is on pace for 5,374, and all he would need to do is average 268 passing yards over the next four games to break Marino's record. Brees has thrown for fewer than 268 yards just once this season, in Week 9 against Tampa Bay.
So let's say Brees shatters the record, but Rodgers and Brady break it, too. Brady is on pace for 5,221 yards and Rodgers for 5,125. The vote likely will come down to personal preference. How much benefit does Rodgers get if the Packers finish 16-0? What about Brady's ability in the clutch? What about Brees' sheer statistical domination?
The way it is going, the intrigue isn't going to be about which player will break Marino's hallowed record but rather who among them will also be the league's MVP.
When given the opportunity to prove he is clutch, Aaron Rodgers seized it. The game against the New York Giants was tied, 35-35, and Rodgers and the Packers got the ball with 58 seconds left. In two plays, a 24-yard pass to Jermichael Finley and a 27-yarder to Jordy Nelson, Rodgers had the Packers in field goal range. One more completion, an 18-yarder to Greg Jennings, and the field goal was a chip shot.
In comparing the big three quarterbacks mentioned above, one knock on Rodgers is that he doesn't have the game-winning drives to his credit that Brady has. But Rodgers doesn't have the numbers because he hasn't had the same opportunities. Rodgers can do anything he wants with the football right now, no matter the time on the clock or the situation. He is that good.
The 49ers got the job done. In the bowels of Lincoln Financial Field on Oct. 2, moments after San Francisco had just beaten the Eagles, 24-23 to improve to 3-1, one Niners assistant said to another: "This is something we can build off of."
It wasn't a season-defining win, but it was surely one of the building blocks of San Francisco's season. Two months later, the Niners are 11-2 and champs of the NFC West with four games still to play. They will go to the postseason for the first time since 2002. It is an impressive achievement for Jim Harbaugh and his staff, for the players, and for the entire organization.
T.J. Yates looked better than expected. Sometimes, it is the unknowns about an unproven quarterback that will give an opposing defense fits. There's little-to-no film to scout, so there's little-to-no understanding of tendencies and weaknesses.
Maybe that's why Yates -- the Texans' third-stringer making his first start after injuries to Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart -- was so solid Sunday against Atlanta. Or maybe it is because Gary Kubiak and his coaches did not pull back but instead kept the offense the same as it had been for Schaub and Leinart.
Yates, a rookie fifth-round pick out of North Carolina, was an unspectacular 12-of-25 for 188 yards and a touchdown, but he had zero turnovers, thanks in large part to a holding call that negated a pick-six. Yates threw a beautiful 50-yard pass that hit Andre Johnson in stride, and he helped guide the Texans to their sixth consecutive win to improve to 9-3.
With one of the most dominating defenses in the league and a punishing running game, Houston has a chance to withstand losing its top two quarterbacks. The hamstring injury Johnson suffered in the third quarter didn't help, but Yates showed, for one game at least, that he can deliver a victory.
It looks as if Chris Johnson is back. Maybe. Possibly. There was the holdout, and then the big new contract, and then those 366 yards spread over the first eight games, a measly average of 45.8 yards per game for a guy who topped the 2,000-yard plateau in 2009.
But now there is this: In three of his past four games, Johnson has rushed for 130, 190 and 153 yards, and, Sunday at Buffalo, he doubled his season touchdown total with two on the ground.
There was a horrid day against Atlanta sandwiched in there, too, when Tennessee was dogged by penalties and mistakes and lost quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. But Johnson's three good games in four weeks couldn't have come at a better time. The Titans are in a playoff race, and, if they are going to have any shot at getting there, they will need Johnson to shoulder a big part of the load.
If the season ended today, the Colts, Rams and Vikings would have the top three picks in the draft. Rounding out the top 10 would be Jacksonville, Washington, Carolina, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Miami and Tampa Bay.
Of those teams, Indianapolis has gone the longest without a top-10 overall pick. The last time the Colts picked in the top 10 was 1999, when they selected running back Edgerrin James. That worked out pretty well. The last time Philadelphia picked in the top 10 was in 2000, when the Eagles selected defensive tackle Corey Simon. That didn't work out so hot.
SLEEPING IN THE OFFICE
Issues that will keep coaches awake this week:
Matt Forte is a bigger loss for Chicago than Jay Cutler was. Crushing, in fact. Forte isn't just another running back. He is the Bears' offense. Forte entered Week 13 as the league leader in yards from scrimmage with 1,475 yards and as Chicago's leading rusher and receiver. He is a mismatch nightmare for linebackers when he takes a screen pass to the outside.
Early indications are Forte suffered a Grade 2 sprain of his MCL and will miss anywhere from two to six weeks. If it is the latter, the Bears, who have lost two straight to drop to 7-5, will not need to worry about signing McNabb or anyone else. Their season will be over.
Jim Schwartz's Detroit Lions are undisciplined, and that is on him. The Lions commit too many penalties. They are crushing themselves with stupid mistakes. A week after committing 11 penalties for 82 yards against Green Bay, including the disqualification of Ndamukong Suh for stomping Packers lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith, the Lions committed 11 penalties for 107 yards in a 31-17 loss to New Orleans.
How can Detroit expect to hang with the league's elite when it has two unnecessary roughness penalties as it did against the Saints: one on Lions wide receiver Titus Young at the New Orleans 7-yard line, and one in the fourth quarter on tight end Brandon Pettigrew?
How can the Lions hang when they have three offensive pass interference calls, or, according to ESPN's Stats & Information, five penalties that nullified 112 passing yards against the Saints?
Schwartz and his coaches need to get tough on the discipline if they want these drive-killing penalties to stop. They can't play nice, not anymore.
Does anyone in the NFC other than the Packers, Niners and Saints want to go to the playoffs? The Giants, Cowboys, Falcons, Bears and Lions all lost Sunday. Three of those teams should make the playoffs, but not one of them will deserve it without a little consistency in December.
Seats are getting hotter. After a 38-19 loss to Carolina, Tampa Bay has lost six straight games by an average of 13.2 points to drop to 4-8. Coach Raheem Morris, who sent defensive tackle Brian Price home after Price was ejected, is on the hot seat. Morris has company, though.
Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo tried to tamp down expectations after his team narrowly missed the playoffs last season. Now, his team is last in the league in points and 31st in total offense. On Sunday, San Francisco shut out St. Louis 26-0. It is hard to imagine Spagnuolo will hang on to his job.
RANT AND RAVE
A coach who will be under review today:
The Dallas Cowboys' 19-13 loss to the Arizona Cardinals wasn't on kicker Dan Bailey, who has been magnificent all season, particularly for a rookie. Bailey entered the day having missed just one field goal all season. He was a perfect 8-for-8 from 40-49 yards.
No, the loss was on coach Jason Garrett for mismanaging the final minute of regulation, then inadvertently icing his own kicker to force overtime.
Garrett mismanaged the clock when, after driving to the Cardinals' 31-yard line with 26 seconds remaining and the score knotted at 13-13, Garrett opted not to use one of his two remaining timeouts to run another play. Garrett had quarterback Tony Romo spike the ball with seven seconds left, setting up a 49-yard field goal attempt.
With the play clock down to six seconds, Garrett called a timeout moments before the snap to Bailey, whose kick sailed through the uprights. On his second attempt, Bailey was short and left. The game went into overtime, and Arizona won when LaRod Stephens-Howling caught a short Kevin Kolb pass and ran 52 yards for a touchdown.
It was a crucial error by Garrett. His team could have taken command of the NFC East over the Giants, who have lost their past four games, but instead still have only a one-game lead at 7-5.
Notable tweets from around the league:
"First time this year we have played 60 minutes of Steeler quality football! Now it's time to move on and get ready for Cleveland." -- @jharrison9292, Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison.
"ths is nothing new. But it's the truth T.E.A.M T ogether E verybody A chieves M ore. #BIDB Believe In Dem Broncos" -- @Brian Dawkins, the Broncos' 16-year veteran safety.
Ashley Fox covers the NFL for ESPN.com.