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Tebow sends Patriots back to the drawing board

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) - Bury the blueprints on how to thwart Tim Tebow. He can beat you with his arm as well as his legs.

The formula up until last weekend was to stack the box and dare him to beat you with all those errant passes.

But coming off his worst game as a pro, the most maligned quarterback in football morphed into a conventional quarterback Sunday in snapping out of a three-game funk and sending the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers to an early playoff exit.

Tebow, whose record-setting redemption kept Denver's thrilling roller coaster of a season roaring right along, is more challenging than ever to defend. So, the top-seeded New England Patriots are preparing for deep passes as much as the Broncos' bothersome read-option offense.

"They're a tough team to prepare for because they do a lot of different things," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "There aren't really any other teams like them in the league, so there's no other team you can really draw that experience from. What they do offensively is a little bit unique."

After relying all season on the league's best ground game, Tebow turned into an Aaron Rodgers-Drew Brees-Tom Brady lookalike by throwing for 316 yards against the league's No. 1 defense in his first playoff appearance.

It wasn't just his 80-yard bullet to Demaryius Thomas, which allowed the Broncos to beat the Steelers 29-23 on the first play of overtime. In the second quarter, Tebow completed four passes of 30 yards or better, something that hadn't been done in the NFL in half a century.

Belichick insists this isn't Tebow 2.0, however.

"I think he's done a lot of those things all year," Belichick said. "He had a great game against Pittsburgh, no doubt about it. But he's played well throughout the season, whether it be managing the team, making decisions, running the ball, throwing the ball, scrambling, any and all of the above. He's a good football player."

One who's now multidimensional.

At John Elway's urging, Tebow was more aggressive Sunday, heeding his boss's advice to "pull the trigger."

"Yeah, I think I did play pretty aggressive in the game," Tebow said Tuesday after the Broncos returned to work following their exhilarating weekend win. "We were playing a very good team, very good defense. And you have to be willing to take some chances to make some big plays against them, because they have so many good players and so many good guys that are rushing, getting to the quarterback. And the offensive line did a great job and the receivers stepped up and made huge plays."

The Broncos (9-8) need an encore performance to beat the heavily favored and well-rested Patriots (13-3).

Tebow's 31.6 yards per completion Sunday were the second-most ever for an NFL quarterback in the regular season or playoffs, surpassed only by Joe Namath's 33.7-yard average against Baltimore in September 1972.

"It was big for us because in this league, you have to keep people off balance," wide receiver Eddie Royal said. "Before last week, people knew they had to stop the run. Stop the run and shut down our offense. But now, they have to second-guess themselves, `Oh, they can throw the ball and be explosive and make some pass plays."'

It was the Broncos' reliance on the run that sold the play-fake on the first snap of overtime - they had rushed on 23 of 25 first downs up to that point.

"It's always good to see us get the big passes, especially because everyone says we can't throw the ball," said tailback Willis McGahee, who had implored the Broncos to improve their passing attack to enhance an already stout ground game.

The Broncos' formula during their eight wins under Tebow had been to play stout defense and spectacular on special teams to keep the grind-it-out offense within striking distance until Tebow could pull off his last-minute magic.

Now, they're mixing in explosive plays.

And Tebow doesn't have to be pinpoint with his passes if the safeties come up and cornerbacks cover the receivers 1-on-1 because his reads will be simpler. He'll have more margin for error if players such as Thomas, who has great hands, have more room to maneuver and fewer defensive backs to get in his way.

"We were just waiting for him to come out and play the way we knew he could and show everybody," Royal said.

Eric Decker, who sprained his left knee on the first play of the second quarter last week, isn't expected to play against the Patriots.

Although he was the Broncos' best receiver in the regular season, with 44 catches for 612 yards and eight touchdowns, half his scores came with Kyle Orton at quarterback. Tebow's top target was actually Thomas, who caught every one of his 32 receptions for 551 yards and four TDs from the lefty.

Over the last two months, Thomas has been one of the most dominating players in the league despite playing in a conservative offense that doesn't allow receivers to strut their stuff too much.

On Sunday, he amassed 204 yards on just four receptions.

"I remember watching him at Georgia Tech and seeing this guy," Royal said. "He didn't get many opportunities there. But when he got them, he made big plays and that's the type of player that he is. I can't imagine what he would do with 20 targets a game. The sky's the limit for this kid. I just hope he continues to get better and I know he will."

In an interesting twist, former Broncos coach Josh McDaniels, who took a chance by drafting both Thomas and Tebow in the first round two years ago, has rejoined the Patriots' staff in time to help them try to end Denver's season.

"You know, he's a very good coach and I wish him nothing but the best, and I'm very thankful for him having the confidence in drafting me," Tebow said. "But I'm very excited about the coaches that we have here."

Notes: With Decker down, the Broncos promoted wide receiver D'Andre Goodwin from their practice squad Tuesday and placed fullback Spencer Larsen (knee) on IR. ... Besides Decker, DE Elvis Dumervil (right ankle), TE Daniel Fells (unspecified injury), and safeties Brian Dawkins (neck) and David Bruton (Achilles) were held out of practice. ... Denver's coordinators Mike McCoy and Dennis Allen can interview for head coaching jobs with the Jaguars and Rams, respectively, starting Thursday afternoon.

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