A mere 48 hours ago, he was America's most adored athlete, living a fairy tale that some dreamed might take his team to the Super Bowl. This chilly Monday morning, Tim Tebow is an afterthought to the NFL season as it moves towards its climax – a quarterback with uplifting game-side rituals but once again of uncertain career prospects.
Responsible for the transformation was the 45-10 rout of Tebow's Denver Broncos at the hands of the New England Patriots in Saturday's first set of divisional play-offs, a result that restores order in the universe of pro football quarterbacks.
With homefield advantage and a superior regular season record, the Patriots were the pre-game favourites. But at that point their superstar Tom Brady was the afterthought. Brady might be the greatest quarterback of an NFL generation richly endowed with great quarterbacks, but as the teams took the field on Saturday he was a bit player.
All eyes were riveted on Tebow – he who has mesmerised the land with his modest demeanour and virtuous private life, the devout Christian who falls to his knee in prayer, head resting on hand, after every Broncos victory, in a gesture that has made him a cult hero and given the language a new word, "tebowing".
But against New England, Tebow's much-discussed flaws as a player were ruthlessly exposed by a team looking once again like the franchise that, under Brady's generalship, dominated the NFL in the previous decade, winning three Super Bowls between 2001 and 2005.
Part of Tebow's allure was that he gave the lie to the know-all critics who mocked his cumbersome throwing style and allegedly poor readership of the game. The critics might have a point, but who cared? He might win ugly, but he won (as with his game-winning touchdown pass in the first seconds of overtime in the wild-card game against the Pittsburgh Steelers).
But the Broncos' miracle came to a shuddering halt against the Patriots, combining suffocating defence with Brady's laser-like arm. Against Pittsburgh, who boasted the League's best defence, Tebow threw for 316 yards and never turned the ball over once. On Saturday he completed just nine of 26 passes and was sacked five times.
Brady, however, threw for 363 yards and six touchdowns, equalling an NFL play-off record. By half-time, with New England leading 35-7, the game was over. Long before the end Patriots fans were mocking their opponents with chants of "Tebow, Tebow".
Their magical ride over, Tebow and the Broncos now confront reality. The player knows that even divine intervention does not always compensate for technical shortcomings, while the Broncos management must decide whether its current quarterback, who was close to being benched at one point in the regular season, is the longer-term answer to their problems.
In the meantime, the play-offs continue. In a game as thrilling as the Patriots/Broncos match-up was one-sided, San Francisco defeated the fancied New Orleans Saints 36-32 in a contest where the lead changed hands four times in the final four minutes. If they win the NFC Championship game this weekend, the 49ers will be involved in their first Super Bowl since 1995.
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