Commentary

Tebow phenomenon gets eerie

Numbers from Denver's wild-card victory could make even staunchest critics buy in

Originally Published: January 13, 2012
By Adam Schefter | ESPN.com

There's no need to embellish in this story. Facts speak for themselves.

On Jan. 8, 2009, in the BCS Championship Game, then-Florida quarterback Tim Tebow wore eye black with the inscription John 3:16, a reference to the Bible passage that says, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."

On Jan. 8, 2012, three years to the date that he caused millions of football fans to Google the meaning of John 3:16, Tebow played his first NFL playoff game, against the Pittsburgh Steelers. And … Tebow threw for 316 yards.

Tebow averaged 31.6 yards per completion, the highest single-game postseason completion average in NFL history.

Ben Roethlisberger's second-quarter interception, which led to a Matt Prater field goal and a 17-6 Broncos lead, came on third-and-16.

The Steelers finished the game with a time of possession of 31:06.

And at the time Tebow threw the game-winning 80-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas -- the NFL's longest postseason pass in overtime history -- CBS's final quarter-hour overnight ratings were, yes, a 31.6.

Now, some people believe in UFOs; some don't. Some believe in the afterlife; some don't. Some believe in coincidences; some don't. And some people believe in the power and talents of Tebow; some don't. But there can be no denying that the events from Denver's wild-card win over Pittsburgh are downright eerie.

When this string of 3:16 facts was relayed to one NFL executive this week, he paused and said: "Is that right? I'm converting."

That's how many people feel now. Tebow is winning more converts with each win. What Denver did in beating Pittsburgh behind Tebow was hard to imagine, but maybe it should not have been. The Broncos were the sixth team in NFL history to reach the postseason with a point differential of minus-50 or worse in the regular season -- and all six of those teams won their first playoff game.

But -- and here's why Broncos fans should worry -- each of the previous five lost its second playoff game. Denver is trying to buck that trend Saturday night in New England against Tom Brady and the Patriots. If anyone is capable of doing it, it would seem to be Tebow, who has made history that no other player has. But this will be the biggest challenge of Tebow's career.

People can argue about whether Tebow is a bona fide quarterback, whether these 3:16 numbers are accidental, but one fact is beyond argument.

With Tebow as their starting quarterback this season, the Broncos are 8-4, including a wild-card win over the defending AFC champions. There's no arguing over who will be Denver's starting quarterback entering the 2012 season.

On to this week's 10 Spot:

1. Vaunted and vulnerable: Football's best weekend, four games involving eight teams over two days, has arrived.

An argument can be made that almost all of the teams are capable of going from the divisional playoffs to Indianapolis to world champion. But there is a real chance we will witness something never before done.

No bottom-three defense ever has won the Super Bowl, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, and yet the two top seeds in each conference this postseason, Green Bay in the NFC and New England in the AFC, are the league's two lowest-ranked defenses. The Packers rank 32nd, the Patriots 31st. The lowest-rated defensive unit ever to win a Super Bowl was the 2009 Saints, which ranked 25th.

Neither unit seemed that bad. Green Bay gave up yards, but when it mattered, slowed down offenses. The Packers tied San Francisco for the NFL lead with 38 takeaways, which softened the sting of all the yards they surrendered.

The Patriots' defense, as shaky as it was, still allowed only 342 points -- 21 fewer than the New York Jets defense that has a reputation for being one of the league's better units.

But these two No. 1 seeds, based on history, might be as vulnerable as any recent No. 1 seed, even with Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady at quarterback.

And it's not just defenses that have to be overcome this postseason, either. No bottom-eight offense ever has won the Super Bowl, according to Elias, and yet the San Francisco 49ers rank 26th in the NFL in total offense. The lowest-rated offensive unit ever to win a Super Bowl was the 2002 Buccaneers, which ranked 24th.

The Niners' offense has been as shaky as the Packers' or Patriots' defense. And thus the top seeds in this tournament are as vaunted as they are vulnerable.

This also is the extreme postseason, where teams are strong on one side and shaky on the other. The Packers have the 32nd-ranked defense but the third-ranked offense, the Patriots have the 31st-ranked defense but the second-ranked offense, the Saints have the 24th-ranked defense but the first-ranked offense, the 49ers have the fourth-ranked defense but the 26th-ranked offense, the Ravens have the third-ranked defense but the 15th-ranked offense and the Texans have the second-ranked defense but the 13th-ranked offense.

But these are different times in football, too. There never has been a season in which footballs have flown like this, never been a season in which so many records have fallen. It would be fitting if more did.

Now the Packers, Patriots and 49ers are trying to make history with historically questionable units.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
Fernando Medina/US PresswireWill fresh air be a problem for Drew Brees and the Saints?

2. Great outdoors? Over the past nine weeks, when they haven't lost a game, no team in football has looked more unstoppable and invincible than the Saints. But plain and simple, New Orleans is a different team outdoors than it is indoors, which is what gives San Francisco and its fourth-ranked defense the hope it needs to pull off a playoff upset. The Saints averaged 41.1 points per game at home this season and 27.3 on the road. They gained 492.6 yards per game at home this season on average and 441.6 yards per game on the road this season on average. The Saints were 8-0 at home this season and 5-3 on the road. They gave up only eight sacks at home but 16 on the road.

It is worth remembering that although New Orleans standout quarterback Drew Brees has thrown 37 touchdowns and eight interceptions in his indoor games this season, he has thrown only nine touchdowns and six interceptions in his outdoor games this season. So there is hope for San Francisco on Saturday night when the proverbial unstoppable force faces the immovable object.

3. Goodbye Gregg? Whenever the Saints' season ends, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams soon could be leaving New Orleans. Williams is in the last year of his contract, and multiple people around the league believe Williams is likely to reunite with head coach Jeff Fisher, with whom he spent seven seasons in Houston and Tennessee. Williams and Fisher have remained close friends, and both men would be great for each other.

Fisher gives Williams the type of freedom he needs to be one of the game's top defensive coordinators, and Williams gives Fisher someone he can trust to lead his defense. Williams is said to be completely focused on Saturday's showdown versus San Francisco and did not return a text seeking comment, but it has to be something of an emotional time for him. He is trying to help the Saints win another Super Bowl knowing that any one of these playoff games could be his last one with the team.

4. McDaniels' revenge: Denver's 2010 draft, the last one that recently hired Patriots offensive assistant coach Josh McDaniels led for the Broncos, yielded more than just Tim Tebow. The first five players Denver drafted in 2010 all started Sunday's wild-card game against Pittsburgh. Denver's first pick was wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, who scored the game-winning touchdown against the Steelers. Its next pick, also in the first round, was Tebow, followed by starting left guard Zane Beadles (second round), starting center J.D. Walton (third round) and wide receiver Eric Decker (third round). All the attention is showered on Tebow, and understandably so. But Denver also plucked some other talent out of the same draft that will be remembered for the one that netted Tebow. Now, McDaniels gets to see each of his former picks up close and personal.

[+] EnlargeCasey Hampton
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesThe Steelers face salary-cap problems. What does that mean for Casey Hampton?
5. Steelers' salary woes: Now that Pittsburgh's season is over, the Steelers have some cleaning up to do. Pittsburgh is projected to be about $23 million over next season's salary cap, and some players and salaries are going to have to be let go. Some of the contracts that figure to grab Pittsburgh's attention are nose tackle Casey Hampton and his $8.1 million salary-cap number, wide receiver Hines Ward ($4.6 million), linebacker James Farrior ($3.8 million) and linebacker Larry Foote ($3.6 million). To create some salary-cap space, it would not be surprising to see Pittsburgh restructure the contracts of Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu and Lawrence Timmons to help clear the way for other players. The Steelers will have some tough financial decisions to make, but they always seem to find a way to get it done the right way -- and are expected to again.

6. End of Ray's era: Any one of these games could turn out to be the last for Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. Linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, who sits next to Lewis on the team's flights, even said last week on Sirius that if Baltimore won the Super Bowl, he could see his teammate, a future Hall of Famer, walking away from the game and retiring. Yet as other Ravens officials said this week, it still is difficult to imagine Lewis retiring, even though he is 36 and has battled a toe injury that prevented him from playing four games this season. Lewis' mind simply doesn't work that way. Yet at some point, Lewis will want to spend more time with his kids and pursue business opportunities. But the Ravens don't think this is that time. They're also smart enough to know that, at this age, Lewis' NFL career could end anytime. And if this season ends with a win, it could turn out to be the end for Lewis.

7. Leaving New York: As far back as the 1950s, when two of their assistant coaches were Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry, the New York Giants have trained their assistant coaches to become great head coaches. And as teams around the league continue searching for the next great head coach, history suggests the place to look is the Giants. Four former Giants assistant coaches -- New Orleans' Sean Payton, New England's Bill Belichick and Denver's John Fox and New York's Tom Coughlin -- are head coaches in this weekend's divisional playoff games. So half of this weekend's head coaches once were Giants assistant coaches. Each cut his teeth in New York, each became a coordinator in New York and each has gone on to reach or win the Super Bowl with another franchise. If nothing else, New York's tradition with assistant coaches means other teams should, at the very least, be inquiring about Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride and defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. Fewell and Gilbride, along with up-and-coming assistant coaches Larry Izzo, David Merritt Sr., Markus Paul, Sean Ryan and Tom Quinn, give New York another generation of quality coaches who have learned from Tom Coughlin, whose job security, finally and fortunately, no longer needs to be questioned.

8. No place like home: Home teams ruled the first round of the playoffs, going a perfect 4-0, which bodes well for Green Bay. No team in football has a better home playoff record than the Packers, who are 15-3 (.833 winning percentage) in the postseason at Lambeau Field compared to only 10-12 in postseason road games. The Lions are 5-1 at home in the postseason, the Redskins are 13-3 and the Broncos 13-3. But nobody has been better for longer than Green Bay. Now that the Packers have locked away home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, other NFC teams must do what many could not. Of course, one of those three losses came against the Giants in the 2007 NFC Championship Game. Now, the Giants get another chance to hand Green Bay another home playoff loss.

[+] EnlargeBrian Schottenheimer
Howard Smith/US PresswireThe Jets' offensive woes cost Brian Schottenheimer his job. Did he shoulder too much of the blame?
9. Up to the minute: Minutes apart Tuesday night, the Jaguars hired former Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey as their head coach while the Jets and their offensive coordinator, Brian Schottenheimer, parted ways. Sometimes football, like life, is unfair. No coordinator was more scapegoated for his team's failures this season than Schottenheimer. Over the past three seasons, he helped quarterback Mark Sanchez throw nine touchdowns passes and three interceptions while leading New York to four road playoff wins, tied for the most of any quarterback in NFL postseason history. Meanwhile, Mularkey has struggled to get Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan on track in the postseason. The Falcons have lost three straight playoffs games, failing to advance in the postseason in any recent year. Even last Sunday against the Giants, with Roddy White and Julio Jones playing wide receiver, Atlanta averaged 8.3 yards per pass and did not have a play longer than 21 yards. And minutes apart Tuesday night, Mularkey and Schottenheimer met different fates.

10. Show me the money: No player in football is in a more enviable contractual situation than Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who is scheduled to make about $22 million in base salaries and bonuses in 2012, what is scheduled to be the last year of his deal. Detroit will try to negotiate a long-term extension, but Johnson's asking price will be no less than what Arizona gave wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald last summer, an eight-year, $120 million contract that included close to $50 million in guaranteed money. If the Lions don't want to meet Johnson's price and instead opt to use the franchise tag on Johnson for the 2013 season, his salary would be 125 percent of his 2012 salary  about $27.5 million. So unless Detroit re-does Johnson's deal in the next year, he would wind up making close to $50 million from the Lions over the next two seasons. But the Lions are aware of all these numbers and there's no other player they'd rather pay than Johnson, whose talents are matched by his work ethic.

The Schef's specialties

• Game of the week: Giants at Packers. A rematch of a great game from earlier this season as well as the classic 2007 NFC Championship Game.

• Player of the week: Patriots QB Tom Brady. After going 14-2 in his first 16 NFL playoff games, Brady has lost his past three while throwing five touchdowns and four interceptions. No way he isn't fully aware of this.

• Upset of the week: 49ers over Saints. There hasn't been a more impressive team in football than the Saints, but there isn't a tougher defense at home than the 49ers.