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That's because the 8--5 Broncos are closing in on an AFC West title. With three games left, they lead the Raiders by one game (and own the tiebreaker over Oakland) and the Chargers by two. After hosting the Patriots this Sunday, they close against the Bills, who have lost six straight, and the Chiefs, who have dropped five of six and haven't scored more than 10 points since Halloween.
There are multiple layers to the turnaround, and each was evident on Sunday, beginning with the defense, which kept the game close until Tebow Time. Denver didn't allow a drive of longer than 44 yards in regulation and limited the Bears (who were without starting quarterback Jay Cutler and starting tailback Matt Forte) to five plays or fewer on 10 possessions, including seven three-and-outs of their own. Through Week 5 the Broncos were giving up 28 points per game, and in three of those games they allowed opponents to convert more than 50% of their third-down opportunities. Since Tebow took over, the D—paced by rookie linebacker Von Miller—has held five opponents to 15 points or fewer and has held teams to 27.3% on third downs. (The league-leading Ravens are at 28.7% for the season.)
Special teams have also come up huge. Prater's game-tying boot was just the 18th field goal in NFL history of 59 yards or more, and his 51-yarder marked his third overtime game-winner this season. Punter Britton Colquitt is tied for second in the league with 26 punts inside the 20. Royal had an 85-yard punt return in the 38--24 win on Nov. 6 at Oakland.
Last, the offense makes plays when it absolutely, positively has to. On Sunday, Tebow connected on 10 of 13 passes for 102 yards in the final five minutes of regulation. He accounted for every yard on the Broncos' 63-yard TD drive, completing seven straight passes, and set up the tying field goal with completions of nine, 11 and 19 yards. Once Denver got the ball back in overtime, the outcome seemed foreordained.
By now we should be accustomed to this from Tebow, who starts like a '72 Pinto in a Rocky Mountain winter. Consider his completion percentage by quarters this season: 48.3 in the first, 33.3 in the second, 37.5 in the third and 61.3 in the fourth. His yardage and touchdown numbers rise accordingly: from 171 yards and one TD, to 107 and one, to 242 and three, to 732 and six. "I guess I just gotta get to the stadium and start practicing a little bit earlier," he says.
Tebow can joke now because he's more comfortable in his environment. The offense is his—surely for now, if not beyond this season. It wasn't supposed to be that way. Veteran Kyle Orton was the incumbent and had the backing not only of management but also of the players. Orton was the experienced pocket passer who could impress coaches in practice with his precision and understanding, whereas Tebow, who is better throwing on the move or out of the pocket, routinely skipped passes or sailed them over open receivers.
The frustration simmered to the surface during the first week in camp, when Tebow told SI that his effectiveness could not be accurately measured in practice. "A lot of my game is keeping the chains moving, running for a first down, taking on a tackler, running through a hit and inspiring my teammates," he said. "Those aren't things you do in practice. In practice you want to work on those areas where you need to get better—play-action drops, checking it down to the flats, understanding the concepts of the offense and defense."
Tebow would most likely have remained on the bench had Orton not committed nine turnovers in the first four-plus games. John Fox, who was hired in January 2011 after nine seasons with Carolina, is an old school coach who relies on a strong running game, ball security, pressure defense and field position. Tebow's abilities in the first two areas have been manifest. With 517 yards, he's second on the team in rushing to Willis McGahee. And for all his inaccuracy, Tebow has thrown just two picks in 198 attempts this season. His interception percentage of 1.0 leads the league.
But Tebow's greatest accomplishment is how quickly he won over his teammates and the organization. His security blanket, former coach Josh McDaniels, was fired late last season. Orton was so popular that teammates voted him a team captain this summer. Fox and new executive vice president John Elway had no ties to Tebow, and neither immediately threw his support behind the former Heisman winner.
It's not a stretch to say that Tebow was like an outsider in his own home. Even after being promoted, he proceeded with caution. He had to be reminded about little things, like barking out the snap count with conviction in practice. In his first start, at Miami, he looked unsure and overly cautious—until the final five minutes, when he was 9 of 13 for 131 yards with two touchdown passes, and even ran in the two-point conversion to force overtime in an 18--15 win. "It was definitely a hard situation," says Tebow of assuming the leadership reins. "One of the key things was just getting a familiarity with everyone around me, plus the offense, the scheme, the game. The relationship with the guys has continued to improve, but I don't think I ever felt [out of place] in the games."