Keeping Score

Tebow vs. Belichick: The Battle for the Soul of the NFL!

Saturday night's New England Patriots–Denver Broncos game pits America's suddenly most popular athlete against a less-than-beloved coach and team. What more can we ask for than this contest of good vs. evil?

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Patriots coach Bill Belichick, left, and Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow

Bill Belichick, the perpetually grim-faced three-time Super Bowl–champion coach of the New England Patriots, is a good guy, his friends and many former players insist year after year. He’s a great guy, even; funny, generous, the works. You’d supposedly love to have a beer with him.

As someone who has never gotten tipsy with Belichick, who am I to dispute this? But like the 42.4 million television viewers who saw Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos knock off the Pittsburgh Steelers last Sunday afternoon in the most watched wild-card game on any network in 24 years, I’m a big fan of football. Even more, I’m a sucker for a classic good-vs.-evil story line.

So on Saturday night, Jan. 14, when the Patriots host the Broncos in one of the most anticipated divisional-round football playoff games in years, I’ll be believing the cartoonish caricature of Belichick: the nasty, nefarious genius who previously tried to spy on other teams’ practices; the callous, humorless, hooded coach whose secretive plots for Patriots domination deserve to be booed. Take, for example, Belichick’s recent hiring of former Broncos coach Josh McDaniels — the man who just happened to draft Tebow — as his offensive-coordinator-in-waiting after current coordinator Bill O’Brien took the Penn State head-coach job. The move happened just in time for McDaniels to spill secrets about Tebow and his former team: coincidence, or conniving Belichick maneuver?

(See two Super Bowl–champion coaches talk NFL playoffs.)

Fairly or not, people raise such questions about Belichick. Plus, even though the Patriots haven’t won a playoff game since the 2007 season — when they went on to lose in the Super Bowl to the Giants — they’re always good. Let’s face it: Belichick, as accomplished and respected a coach as he is, can take the fun out of football. The Pats’ success over the past decade can be a bit boring if not downright annoying.

On the other side, we have a near perfect foil for Belichick in Tebow, the most popular active athlete in America, according to an ESPN poll released this week. Think what you will about his public praying; it turns many people off, and many others are just tired of Tebowmania and want it to end. But you would be hard-pressed to deny that Tebow is a good-hearted person with a unique, compelling (if often confounding) playing style and that his games tend to have thrilling, surprising finishes, the latest being his 80-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas in the first play of overtime that sent the defending AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers home. From a fan’s perspective, what’s not to love? For the NFL, a league already enjoying yet another stellar season, Tebow’s presence has been like a gift from the football gods.

(See more on Tebow in “Football’s Leap of Faith.”)

And so, with Tebow facing off against Belichick, let’s indulge our favorite warrior metaphors and call the game nothing less than a battle for the soul of pro football. It’s even a sequel. New England already beat Denver, on Dec. 18, 41-23. Though Tebow wasn’t horrible — he finished 11 of 22 for 194 passing yards, with no touchdowns or interceptions, and ran for 93 yards and two touchdowns — he couldn’t summon his comeback magic in that game. To get a sense of what Belichick might be concocting to crush Tebow’s season for good — heck, to enable evil to triumph over good — and put a jarring end to the wild Tebow ride, we called up a couple of ex-Pats.

First off, says former Patriots tight end Christian Fauria, a member of the 2004 and 2005 Super Bowl teams, Belichick will avoid the Steeler ‘tude toward Tebow. “The Steelers were real aggressive and arrogant,” says Fauria, now a radio analyst for Boston sports station WEEI. “They had total disregard for his ability to throw.” Instead, Belichick likely showed his team Tebow highlights on film. “He’ll say, ‘You think he can’t make the throw? Bam, watch this — there goes the throw,” says Fauria. ” ‘Think he can’t throw out of the pocket? Bam, he throws out of the pocket.’ It’s mentally saying, ‘Don’t believe your lying eyes.’ ”

(See Tebow among the people who mattered in 2011.)

Former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, like Belichick a three-time Super Bowl champ, expects some smart tactical moves from the Patriots. For example, he believes the Pats will employ “double-edged pressure,” in which New England’s linebackers rush Tebow from the outside and cut off his running angles. This strategy should force Tebow to make quick decisions and pitch the ball to a running back; therefore, other Patriots defenders can home in on the running back soon after the ball is snapped. “The Patriots want the ball out of Tebow’s hands,” says Bruschi. “Bill Belichick has too much respect for Tebow as a legitimate runner.”

So what else has Belichick stressed in meetings? Does the great coach change his style for the playoffs? “He’s not someone who screamed, ‘This is the playoffs, you guys!” says Fauria. “It’s just not him. He’s was more going to sit there and go, ‘Look at this team, look at what they’re capable of doing. Get in your playbook, get the rest you need, don’t do anything stupid.’ There was no shift in emphasis.” That’s not exactly inspiring. “Listen,” says Fauria, “football life in general is monotonous, regimented. If you’re winning, though, boring is great.”

Maybe that’s true for the Patriots players and fans. But boring isn’t great for the rest of us. So many of us hope that Tim Tebow marches all over New England — and Tebows afterward to his heart’s content.

See “Tim Tebow’s 316 Passing Yards Evokes Biblical Number”

Here are 9 more things you might not know about Tebow.