Despite loss, Broncos still on playoff pace

Tim Tebow and the Broncos are still in sole possession of first place in the AFC West. AP Photo/Barry Gutierrez

DENVER -- The Denver Broncos ended up getting their obligatory late-game miracle after all.

While Denver was in the waning moments of its first loss since October -- the Broncos fumbled away a 41-23 home loss to the opportunistic New England Patriots -- the usually dynamic fourth-quarter Broncos had no idea they were being blessed from afar.

The second-place Oakland Raiders, who were on the verge of tying up the AFC West race heading into the final two weeks of the season, let a 13-point lead slip away in the final five minutes, losing at home to Detroit 28-27.

So, despite a home loss and the slight derailment of TebowMania, Denver's road to the playoffs remained on schedule. The Broncos (8-6) play at Buffalo (the Bills have lost seven straight games) and Oakland plays at Kansas City on Saturday. While there are many possibilities in the playoff scenarios (check out our Playoff Machine for the details), Denver will beat out Oakland if it wins at home against Kansas City in Week 17 regardless of anything else that happens.

Because of Oakland’s late collapse, Denver’s coaching staff can use Sunday’s loss as a valuable teaching tool without the heartache of losing tied for first place.

After winning six straight games (including the past four games after trailing in the fourth quarter), Denver saw its chances essentially disappear Sunday when the Patriots scored 27 unanswered points in the second and third quarters.

It taught this young, impressionable squad that it simply can't wait for Tim Tebow's fourth-quarter magic to appear.

The biggest problem for the Broncos -- who were great in the first quarter and took a 16-7 lead early in the second quarter -- was their three fumbles in their territory in the second quarter. New England is 101-4 since 2001 when it wins the turnover battle. The Broncos killed themselves as running back Lance Ball, Tebow and returner Quan Cosby all gave the Patriots holiday gifts. The Patriots turned those miscues into 13 points.

“The reality is, we’re not at the stage where we can overcome minus-three turnovers,” Broncos coach John Fox said.

Denver also sagged on defense at critical times and the unit also committed several dumb penalties.

The upstart Broncos left the stadium knowing they can’t play that sloppy against the better teams in the conference and get away with it.

I got the sense from Fox and several of his players that the Broncos actually were encouraged by Sunday’s game. They knew they could have been in the game had they not been so mistake-prone.

“This was a setback, no doubt about that, but sometimes setbacks are setups for bigger things to come,” Fox said. “I think we’re a good team, but tonight they were better than us.”

Added Tebow: “We were right there with them and there’s a lot of great things we can take out of this game and try to improve … We’re going to be excited about going to Buffalo, and we’re going to be extremely motivated.”

It will be interesting to see if the national obsession with TebowMania falls off this week after Tebow and the Broncos were unable to deliver another fourth-quarter comeback.

The truth is, the Broncos are encouraged by Tebow’s performance Sunday. Never at one point during the game did Tebow hold back his team. During the six-game winning streak, Tebow had stretches of poor play. Yes, he lost a fumble. But this was a team loss, not a Tebow loss.

If Tebow can continue to get better, the Broncos know they are going to be in good shape for the rest of this season and beyond. Tebow (who still rifles off the occasional wounded duck) threw several on-the-money bullets Sunday. He finished 11-of-22 for 194 yards and was not intercepted. He ran for a game-high 93 yards on 12 carries. He had several I-can’t-believe-he got-out-of-that-mess plays as well.

In short, despite the loss, Tebow continued his growth as an NFL quarterback Sunday.

“Six or seven weeks ago, people said he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn,” Fox said. “But I think he does that. I think can he do that. I don’t think that’s why we lose the game.”

They lost the game because they gave it away. The Broncos will be kicking themselves when they watch the film Monday morning and realize they lost a game in which they ran for 167 yards and kept the ball for 10 minutes, 45 seconds of the first quarter. They’ll wonder what if they had fumbled only once instead of three times. They’ll wonder why they uncharacteristically lacked defensive intelligence.

They will digest it, and then they’ll wonder how good they can be if they clean up those issues. And then they'll thank the Lions for stunning the Raiders and keeping Denver in control of the division going into the holiday weekend.