FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — This season, and most especially in the days leading up to the Patriots' division playoff game against the Broncos, Tim Tebow — the media phenomenon, the cultural touchstone — was at the center of an endless-loop conversation about the nature of offensive football and the convergence of sports and religion.
Saturday night, he sat on the bench, an overcoat sheltering his shoulders while Tom Brady led another scoring drive with the Patriots up 42-7, the crowd began a taunt: "Te-bow! Te-bow! Te-bow!"
Brady threw a record-tying six touchdowns, a record five in the first half, to put the Patriots into the AFC title game with a 45-10 victory.
"We came in and started fast," Brady said. "And it was a big win for us."
The Patriots, winners of nine consecutive games, host the winner of today's game between the Ravens and Texans with a chance to reach their fifth Super Bowl in 11 seasons.
And so ended one of the season's most exciting story lines — one that caught the nation's attention and began when Denver was 1-4 and made Tebow a starter. The one-time third-stringer won six in a row (before losing to New England on Dec. 18) to help the Broncos win the AFC West and beat the Steelers in last week's wild-card game.
But Saturday, he was 9-of-26 for 136 yards and had 13 yards on five carries. He also was sacked five times.
"We went out and played very hard and good things happened," New England defensive tackle Vince Wilford said; "a great team win."
In a way the result restored the natural order of the NFL. Brady is the pre-eminent quarterback of his generation. But last week, he was thrust into an unusual spot for him — someone else's shadow. He has not inspired anybody to drop to one knee in prayer nor have songwriters rewrite lyrics in his honor.
But Brady's night, 26-of-34 for 363 yards, showed he has the accuracy that has helped the Patriots win three Super Bowls. (He even punted with 2:56 left, 48 yards on third down.)
The first sign that Tebow's magic would end came within a few minutes of the opening kickoff. The Patriots needed just five plays, including a 43-yard run by former Florida tight end Aaron Hernandez and 7-yard touchdown catch by Wes Welker, to take a 7-0 lead. On the Broncos' sixth play, Tebow was sacked and the ball was stripped.
By halftime, there was little doubt of the outcome.
Brady threw three touchdowns to tight end Rob Gronkowski as the Patriots took a 35-7 lead.
"We were playing complementary football," Gronkowski said. "And it was awesome."
Meanwhile, Tebow struggled to move the Broncos, completing just three of his 10 passes for 28 yards. He was stripped of the ball on Denver's sixth play, setting up Gronkowski's second touchdown.
Brady's fourth touchdown pass, 61 yards to Deion Branch down the sideline late in the first half, set a Patriots playoff record for a game. His sixth touchdown, a 17-yarder to Hernandez early in the third, matched the record shared by Steve Young (Super Bowl XXIX in January 1995) and Daryle Lamonica (December 1969).
At that point, Tebow still had completed only three passes for 28 yards.