There has been one conversation in Colorado this week, from the high country in the mountains to the sprawling city of Denver: The miracle of Tim Tebow meets the reality of Tom Brady.
Football is religion in Colorado and an editorial cartoonist on Saturday captured the mood perfectly. The cartoon pictured a tiny Tim Tebow, the most famous evangelic Christian in America, tossing a football labelled "belief" in his left hand, staring confidently up at a hulking figure, with Patriots emblazoned on the giant's back.
"David vs. Goliath = Tebow Time."
In one corner, Timmy Tebow, the Mile High Messiah, one of the greatest college quarterbacks ever, a surprise first-round pick, an NFL sophomore who experts still insist will be a failure. In the other, Tom Brady, a sixth-round draft choice, Hall of Fame bound, three Super Bowl Rings. It is a 24-year-old self-declared virgin versus a 34-year-old married to a supermodel. It is New England, 10-3, with the second-most offensive yards in the league and a defence that's given up the most yards of any team. It is Denver, 8-5, with the NFL's best rushing offence, the second-worst passing, and a so-so defence that is spectacular against the run.
But obviously it's more than football. It is the intersection of religion and sport, money and violence. It is the story of America, encapsulated in one 60-minute game, to be played out this afternoon at Sports Authority Field across the South Platte River from downtown Denver, kickoff just after 2 p.m. Mountain Time, the sun bright, the sky mostly bluebird, a forecast high of 10 C.
The mood around the stadium was festival-like, as fans enjoyed the brilliant and unusually warm December Sunday - ideal tailgating weather. Smoke from barbeques billowed, beer cans were in most people's hands. And Tebow jerseys were everywhere, of course, though there were plenty of No. 12 Bradys, too.
Denver locals Carmella Trujilla and friend Denise Pettenger sported twin signs, "Tebow 3:16, For God so Loves the Broncos..."
"I love that he believes," said Pettenger. "Don't leave early is all I have to say!"
Trujilla, on Tebow: "He's brought great energy to the city, and football. His positive approach is what draws people to him."
Nearby, 21-year-old Erik Buysey had driven from Billings, Montana. He converted to Broncos fandom from backing Green Bay when John Elway heroically won Super Bowl XXXII, Denver's first. Buysey was shirtless, painted orange and blue with No. 15 on his chest.
"I love Tebow," he said. "He wins games. It may not be the prettiest. Wins are what matters."
With three games remaining in the regular-season schedule, a W is big for both teams. A win clinches the AFC East for New England and vaults the team towards home-field advantage through the conference playoffs. A win for Denver keeps it ahead of Oakland, with the Raiders right on the heels of a Broncos squad that had been widely predicted to easily secure last place in the AFC West.
Back then, in August, before Tebowing was a word, the truncated preseason after the lockout, Tebow was dealing with the usual flack. He can't throw. His feet are at best clumsy after he takes a snap to drop into the pocket. Tebow was, as ever, confident in himself, and unwilling to lash back at the many, many critics.
The skeptics, it is widely assumed, included his own coach, John Fox, and John Elway, Broncos legend and the team's executive vice-president of football operations. Both men were hired last January, after Josh McDaniels, the young coach that drafted Tebow, was fired. Of course, McDaniels knows something about winning quarterbacks, having coached Brady in New England for four years.
"They don't know what I'm capable of and what's inside me," Tebow told reporters of the legions of detractors.
"My family and my friends have been bothered by what's gone on, and I tell them to pay no attention to it. I'm relying as always on my faith."
The Broncos faithful have embraced Tebow, with many calling on Fox in September to install him as the starter, although many others were still screaming f-bombs at him as recently as mid-November, when he put in a weak performance (104 yards passing) against the New York Jets. That was the Nov. 17 game that Tebow clinched with less than a minute to go, a 20-yard TD run to cap a 95-yard drive, the first of four consecutive come-from-behind wins, a feat accomplished by only one other quarterback, some dude named Peyton Manning.
The run, part of Tebow's 7-1 record as a starter, is what Sports Illustrated called- why avoid hyperbole? - "the craziest, most unlikely eight-week run in NFL history."
It has, in the words of Time Magazine, made Tebow a "national phenomenon," one so big even flailing presidential candidates (hello Rick Perry!) desperately invoke his name in debates.
It even might - let's check back in a couple years - be the second coming.
"Football is not only a religion in Colorado, it is a monotheistic faith," wrote Denver native Michael Humphrey on the New Yorker website in April, 2010, after the Bronos picked Tebow in the first round.
"The One - John Elway - retired in 1999, and all five quarterbacks since have failed spectacularly."
Until, so far, Timmy (the name his mother addresses her youngest son by).
Bettors are certain of a Pats win. The line started at less than a touchdown and by Sunday morning had shot to eight points as money piled on New England.. The game has attracted, reports say, five times more action than any other NFL match this season.
Tebow certainly faces his toughest test yet in the NFL. His seven wins came against teams who are 39-52. New England is 5-2 on the road, and the Pats are on a run of five straight wins. Brady would be a lock for his second consecutive (and third total) most valuable player award, if it that fellow Aaron Rodgers wasn't lighting up a historic season in Packers green and yellow.
Denver fans might take vague solace, and hope, in the Broncs record against Brady, who has lost five times in six tries against Denver. The six games include the 2005 season's playoffs, the last time the Broncos were in the playoffs, when Denver trounced New England, ending the Pats' 10-game playoff winning streak and snatching away Brady's shot at a record third straight Super Bowl win.
Much has been made about how terrible a passer Tebow is, how there's no way he'll ever make it long-term in the NFL, a passing league not welcoming to running quarterbacks with weak arms, how his penchant for running will eventually see him beheaded by some monster linebacker (even though he seemed to easily absorb seven sacks in his only loss, to the Detroit Lions).
Yet far fewer people note several other pertinent facts. Tebow has thrown only two interceptions, compared with 11 touchdowns. And Tebow doesn't exactly have Pro Bowl receivers. In fact, while he still tosses some weird wobbles, he's shown improvement as his unlikely run extends week by week. His quarterback rating of 83.9 as a sophomore NFLer resembles that of another sophomore quarterback, some chap named Brady, who a decade ago took the reins when Drew Bledsoe got hurt, put up a quarterback rating of 86.5, and went 11-3 the rest of the regular season as a starter, en route to his first Super Bowl victory (beating two-touchdown favourites, the St. Louis Rams by three, after which many people still questioned whether Brady was actually any good).
"There are so many things that Tim can do," Elway told Denver's news-sports radio 850 AM on Thursday. Elway talked about how he plans to work closely with Tebow after this season - something he couldn't do before this season because of the lockout.
"He's got the work ethic, he's got the want to be able to work on all of the techniques, his feet, his drops, the timing, and throwing the football" - Elway stopped with significant emphasis on his final words - "with rhythm."
So, as kickoff approaches, we are decidedly, and for at least some people happily, in the realm of hyperbole. On Saturday night, Denver's Channel 7 late-night news led with the story of "the game of the year," as "Tebow mania reaches another level." Broncos beat writer, Mike Klis of the Denver Post, said on the paper's football blog this week that Tebow is "the biggest star to rock the NFL since Joe Namath was the anti-establishment hero of the late-1960s."
Another Post blog piece talked of the "massive media horde descending on Denver." Some 1,300 media credentials have been issued (double the usual, and a third of that for a Super Bowl), to the likes of national American media such as the New York Times. "The team," the Post noted, "has also received requests from multiple Canadian newspapers."
Meanwhile, Tebow is his usual calm self. He is a man of firsts (too many to list at this moment) and acts like it: He has always been a winner.
"We know our crowd'll be fired up," was among the spew of clichés he amiably issued at a Wednesday presser, in which he noted the importance of taking it "one day at a time," and to "try to improve, and get a little bit better."
Concluding remarks, we shall leave them to the man of the hour, Timothy Richard Tebow, two from post-game last week against Chicago, where a Bears meltdown and two 50-yard-plus kicks from Denver's ace Matt Prater extended Tebow's miracle run to four straight.
1: "It's not Tebow Time," Tebow said. "It's Broncos Time."
2: "If you believe, unbelievable things can sometimes be possible."