DENVER — The Denver Broncos faithful are usually riveted to their seats late in the fourth quarter, anxiously waiting to see what magical finish Tim Tebow has up his sleeve.
This time, there was no last-minute rally. This time, when Tebow took the field late in the game, the fans were long gone and the outcome long decided.
No Tebow Time. Now, it's time to regroup.
The New England Patriots took advantage of three second-quarter turnovers in a 41-23 win on Sunday that allowed them to clinch the AFC East.
And while this loss snapped a six-game winning streak by the Broncos (8-6), they still retain their lead in the AFC West courtesy of Detroit's comeback victory in Oakland.
Still, with their first loss since Oct. 30, the Broncos face a tougher path to the playoffs, with a trip to Buffalo next weekend and then a season finale against Kansas City, which ended Green Bay's 19-game winning streak Sunday behind Kyle Orton, the player Tebow supplanted in Denver.
"We showed today that we're not ready to go to the playoffs and make a push," Champ Bailey said. "We've got to get better and we only have two or three weeks to do it. If we don't, then we'll be sitting home in the playoffs."
It was a wake-up call for this team, which has been so reliant on late-game heroics.
But Brady made sure there wasn't any late dramatics for Tebow and the Broncos. Brady put this game out of reach with an efficient and effective performance, completing 23 of 34 passes for 320 yards and two scores. He also ran for another.
The Broncos even took away his security blanket in tight end Rob Gronkowski.
No matter, Brady turned to his other tight end, Aaron Hernandez, who had a huge game as he set career highs in catches (nine) and yards (129).
"When you don't play smart against a team like that, they take advantage of you," rookie safety Quinton Carter said. "When you make those mistakes against a team of that caliber, and a quarterback like that, with the history like that and the coaches they have, you won't win. Simple as that. As close as it was, we played horrible."
The Broncos got off to a quick start, too. That's been a rarity since Tebow stepped under center; the Broncos have scored just six times in 49 first-half possessions since Tebow took over.
But they converted on three straight drives Sunday, keeping up with the high-scoring Patriots (11-3).
Then, the turnovers hit.
Up 16-14, Denver turned the ball over three times, leading to 13 points by the Patriots. That stretch pretty much ended any shot of Tebow coming through at crunch time. The Broncos had simply dug themselves too deep of deficit.
"Turnovers killed us," said running back Lance Ball, who had one of the fumbles in the second quarter. "Should've held onto it."
Returner Quan Cosby was kicking himself as well after the game. Cosby had a costly fumble just before halftime, when he ran up to field a punt only to have it clang off his hands. The Patriots recovered and Stephen Gostkowski nailed a 34-yard field goal as the first half expired.
"Man, it was one of those nights," Cosby said. "Fortunately, we're still in the hunt. Fortunately, we can correct it. Tomorrow is a new day. I think that's the attitude everyone is going to take, especially me. Get back to work because we still have a lot of our goals in store and we're ready to go after them."
It was a solid performance for Tebow in spite of the loss. He made plays with his feet, rushing for 93 yards, and threw for another 194. But he also had a costly fumble in the second quarter.
"We definitely have to be consistent. That's something we can improve on," Tebow said. "If we don't have those turnovers, we can have that balance of run-pass and hopefully keep them on their heels a little bit. It's something we have to improve on."
Total Net Yards451393
Interceptions Ret. 0-00-0
Time of Possession33:4126:19
New England7 20 7 7—41 Denver13 3 0 7—23
Den—Tebow 9 run (run failed), 9:49.
NE—Ochocinco 33 pass from Brady (Gostkowski kick), 7:24.
Den—Ball 32 run (Prater kick), 5:01.
Den—FG Prater 26, 13:47.
NE—Hernandez 1 pass from Brady (Gostkowski kick), 8:43.
NE—FG Gostkowski 21, 5:49.
NE—Brady 1 run (Gostkowski kick), 1:12.
NE—FG Gostkowski 34, :00.
NE—Woodhead 10 run (Gostkowski kick), :39.
Den—Tebow 2 run (Prater kick), 8:41.
NE—Green-Ellis 1 run (Gostkowski kick), 4:10.
Rushing—New England, Ridley 11-65, Woodhead 7-40, Green-Ellis 10-17, Hernandez 1-16, Brady 6-2, Faulk 1-1. Denver, Tebow 12-93, McGahee 7-70, Ball 11-64, Johnson 1-25.
Passing—New England, Brady 23-34-0-320. Denver, Tebow 11-22-0-194, D.Thomas 0-1-0-0.
Receiving—New England, Hernandez 9-129, Gronkowski 4-53, Welker 4-41, Green-Ellis 2-32, Ochocinco 1-33, Underwood 1-13, Woodhead 1-12, Edelman 1-7. Denver, D.Thomas 7-116, Ball 2-41, Decker 1-22, Willis 1-15.
Missed Field Goals—None.