(Reuters) - Tim Tebow, the most-talked about quarterback in the National Football League, goes up against one of the most successful of the past decade when the Denver Broncos host Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in Sunday’s marquee game.
The game is one of many this week with playoff implications as the NFL enters the final three weeks of regular season play, but no matchup is more keenly anticipated than the clash of two AFC divisional leaders.
The AFC East’s Patriots need a win to clinch their place in the post-season while the AFC West’s Broncos are desperate for a victory to keep their momentum towards the playoffs going after winning seven of eight games since Tebow was named starter.
Tebow, the unorthodox, college-style quarterback whose very public displays of religiosity have polarized opinion and whose technique led many critics to write him off as a pro, has simply been the story of the 2011 NFL season so far.
The 24-year-old signal caller is well aware his counterpart in Sunday’s game represents, in many ways, the gold standard in the NFL. After all, Brady has won three Super Bowls, was named the most valuable player in two of the championship games and has earned six Pro Bowl selections.
“He’s a master of so many things at the quarterback position,” said Tebow. “He’s been one of the best in the league for a long time.”
Denver have adapted their offense to embrace Tebow’s ability to run with the ball while compensating for his limited throwing ability, and their defense has ensured the quarterback has been in a position to launch a series of late-game comebacks.
Denver have won their previous six games, three of them in overtime, including last week’s win over the Chicago Bears that marked the second time Tebow led the Broncos to victory after trailing by 10 or more points in the final three minutes.
The phrase ‘Tebow Time’ has been coined to capture the fact that five times this year his Broncos have won games in which they trailed in the fourth quarter.
But the latest test for Tebow will be Bill Belichick’s experienced and astute New England team, tipped by many to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
Belichick knows to expect much more than just the Tebow factor from coach John Fox’s Broncos team.
“They do a lot of things well. They run the ball well, they have a little bit of an option game, they throw it well, play-action, thrown the ball down the field to some big receiver who can go up and get it. It’s no one man band - we’ll get tested across the board,” he told reporters.
The Patriots head coach, a three-time Super Bowl winner, also does not buy into the popular notion that Tebow’s throwing ‘mechanics’ are not suited to the NFL.
“His passing is good,” said Belichick. “It was good in college, he was a very productive passer in college and he’s thrown the ball well in this league. He’s got some very good throws, as good as anybody that you want to put in there.”
Two other AFC playoff spots could be determined with the Baltimore Ravens needing a win at San Diego to be sure and the Pittsburgh Steelers knowing a win on Monday against the already playoff bound San Francisco 49ers would be enough.
The unbeaten Green Bay Packers already have a bye in the first round of the playoffs and can secure home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs with a win at the Kansas City Chiefs or a 49ers loss.
Reporting by Simon Evans in Miami; Editing by Frank Pingue