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Uncertainty reigns for Tebow after Broncos' playoff loss

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- With a strut as smooth as you'd expect, Tom Brady walked toward the players' parking lot at Gillette Stadium on Saturday night with wife Gisele Bundchen hanging gently on his arm, the perfect pair sporting their perfect smiles.

To his right, Tim Tebow stood with his family, huddled in a tight circle that included three of his siblings and both of his parents. When Brady saw Tebow, he stopped for a quick hello that included a hug and a few words.

Then, he was gone -- two quarterbacks passing in the night, one cruising toward his sixth conference championship appearance and the other heading for an offseason of questions about the direction of his young but polarizing career.

This season now will move forward without Tebow. It will leave him behind in the underbelly of that stadium, in the ashes of a 45-10 dismantling, as the NFL rushes back into a direction of normalcy that includes names like Brady and Manning and Rodgers.

Some will say order has been restored after Saturday's inarguable New England dominance, a truth that could be proven as much by Brady's ridiculously strong performance as Tebow's obviously inadequate one. No doubt, the Patriots belong in the AFC Championship Game. No doubt, the Denver Broncos do not.

But if we learned anything from this season -- one that included as many inspiring and improbable wins as anyone could have fathomed when Tebow first took over the Broncos' starting job Oct. 23 -- we should realize this ride is far from over.

Where will it go? That's a question none of us, not the skeptics nor the supporters, can answer with any conviction or clarity despite both sides' desires to do just that. In the midst of Tebow's heroics and struggles, it always seemed wise to withhold judgment, to reserve any conclusions until the season's entire body of work revealed itself.

But now, here we are, Tebow's season in the books, still watching two sides debate his potential like a spectator at a tennis match. Back and forth. Back and forth.

The critics will act as if they had the last laugh, as if Tebow's passing performance (9 of 26 for 136 yards) was proof enough that he'll never be a franchise quarterback. The supporters will point to an offensive line that played poorly and a defense that was trying to cover tight end Rob Gronkowski with an undrafted rookie cornerback.

The truth, of course, probably is somewhere in between. After all, are we not only one week removed from another game in which Tebow won over many of his skeptics with a brilliant performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers' No. 1-ranked defense?

Whether observers are sick of it or not, this Tebow tale will continue. It will resonate in Denver until next season, barring a trade that would only regenerate the mania all over again. It will create more debates. It will elicit more conversations. It ultimately will seep into next season because of the lack of conclusive evidence from this one.

If you're among those who've had enough, enjoy your next eight months, because this debate soon will return. It will be back at the forefront of the NFL's storylines as Tebow's most ardent supporters allow the benefit of time to replace the sting of the season's final loss with the memories of his eight improbable wins.

After just two seasons in the NFL, Tebow deserves an offseason to prove his ability to make a leap toward becoming more consistent. Can you name another second-year quarterback who finished 7-4 as a starter with a playoff win over the Steelers that wouldn't receive that chance?

"In some way, shape or form, I'm going to work hard to try to get a lot better," Tebow said Saturday night.

He earned another opportunity to do that, even if his transparent struggles at times also deprived him of the right to be upset if the Broncos still seek a potentially sound backup plan to put into place for the 2012 training camp. But who will that be? The Broncos aren't in a position to draft a highly touted quarterback, and they aren't likely to acquire a big-money player with the uncertainty about Tebow still lingering.

By now, you're probably recognizing a common thread: This debate is far from settled.

This season, Tebow provided all of us with special moments. True, they were worthy of the debates they inspired. Yes, the arguments often became extremely polarizing, often to unhealthy degrees. Yet it'd be difficult for anyone, whether critical or casual, to belittle the level of entertainment that Tebow created.

As we move forward from this season -- an inevitably that was created by Saturday's ugly loss -- the Broncos will have plenty of memories from 2011 to recall fondly. But where will it lead us? Where will Tebow's career go from here?

For those answers, you'll simply have to wait for the sequel.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington.

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