The Buffalo Bills played the role of Christmas Grinch to perfection by denying the Denver Broncos a chance to clinch a playoff spot with a 40-14 win on Saturday, halting their own seven-game losing streak.
Already guaranteed to miss the post-season for a 12th straight year, the Bills (6-9) spotted the Broncos (8-7) an early touchdown, then rallied behind touchdowns from C.J. Spiller and Leodis McKelvin, and four field goals from Dave Rayner to send the smallest home crowd in a decade (45,112) off for the holidays happy.
“The losses that pile up motivated us,” Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick told reporters. “The fans that were here were awesome, but there were a lot of empty seats and a lot of that is because of our play, so that motivated us too.”
Tim Tebow threw for a touchdown and ran for another, but there would be no Christmas miracles for the Denver quarterback, who has become famous for pulling out late comeback victories.
Instead of coming through in the clutch, Tebow spectacularly collapsed and tossed four second-half interceptions, including back-to-back picks in the fourth quarter for touchdowns by Jairus Byrd and Spencer Johnson.
“We believe that we are capable of pulling some pretty cool things off,” Tebow said. “We believed all the way until the end. It’s one loss, and we have to bounce back and have a great week against Kansas City.”
Christmas provided the perfect stage for Tebow, a player who wears his religion like a badge, who has become one of the NFL’s most popular and polarizing figures.
Spoofed on television, but adored by young Christians, Tebow kept the loss in perspective as he prepared to set off to celebrate the holidays.
“Isn’t it great that no matter what, win or lose, we can still have a chance to celebrate my savior’s birth tomorrow,” Tebow said.
“That’s something I’m really excited about, celebrating Christmas,” he said.
Denver had arrived in Buffalo with a one-game lead at the top of the AFC West in position to claim the division crown and their first playoff appearance since 2005 with a win and an Oakland Raiders loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
However, the division crown will now be decided on the final day of the regular season, with the Broncos hosting the Chiefs and the Raiders at home against the San Diego Chargers.
For the third time in the last four seasons, the Broncos have carried an 8-5 record into the final three weeks of the season and they will try to avoid a repeat of their 2008 and 2009 meltdowns when they lost the last three games to miss the playoffs.
“We had opportunities, but it went the other way,” Denver coach John Fox said. “They stretched their lead out with two turnovers for scores.”
The Broncos had appeared ready to bring home a welcome gift for their fans as they took early control of the contest.
Willis McGahee started the Broncos opening drive, going more than 1,000 yards this season on his first carry, and Tebow capped the 73-yard march by diving over from the one.
A former Bill, McGahee became just the second player to rush for 1,000 yards with three different teams.
Buffalo blew two scoring chances in the first quarter, Rayner missing on two field goal attempts, but the Bills caught fire in the second quarter as the Broncos went stone cold.
Rayner opened the quarter by finally connecting on a 28-yard field goal, before McKelvin brought the chilled crowd to their feet, taking a punt and darting 80 yards for a touchdown.
Just before the half, Spiller charged into the end zone from the four to send Bills into the intermission up 17-7.
Denver were quick out of the blocks again in the second half, Tebow hitting Daniel Fells with a 17-yard touchdown strike to slice the Buffalo lead to 17-14, but the Bills answered with two 25-yard Rayner field goals and another 29-yarder off a Tebow interception to open the final quarter and regain control of the contest at 26-14.
Buffalo then sealed the win in emphatic fashion, Byrd scoring on a 37-yard interception and Johnson rumbling 17-yards for another score.
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