Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos came through again with a strong, determined finish after enduring another slow start.
This time, Tebow was in a groove the entire second half — not just in the waning minutes — and his teammates on defence were getting gobbled up. But there they were in the end, emulating Tebow's late-game touch.
Tebow passed for a season-best 202 yards and two third-quarter touchdowns to help the unflappable Broncos win their fifth straight game, 35-32 over the Minnesota Vikings Sunday on Matt Prater's 23-yard field goal as time expired.
"I know that I had a lot of help. Offensive line did a great job, and receivers stepped up and made me look a lot better than I really am," said Tebow, who completed 10 of 15 passes, his best percentage as an NFL starter, and posted a career-high passer rating of 149.3.
Prater kicked two field goals in the final 93 seconds for the Broncos (7-5), who forged a first-place tie in the AFC West with a loss by the Oakland Raiders. Christian Ponder set Minnesota's single-game rookie record with 381 yards passing, including a pair of long touchdowns to Percy Harvin, but his sideline throw with 1:33 remaining was intercepted by Andre Goodman and returned to the 15-yard line.
Lance Ball's first-down run for 11 yards made it first-and-goal at the 4 with 1:12 remaining, but the Vikings decided against letting them score right away and took their chances with a shank or a block instead. But the Broncos drained the clock for Prater's winner and raised their record to 6-1 with Tebow as the starter.
"Hard to argue. That guy wins games," Ponder said.
Harvin had a career-high 156 yards for the Vikings (2-10), who lost their fourth in a row.
"Too many times this year we've had leads and then had letdowns or missed assignments," Harvin said. "It's another game we feel we had control of, and to somehow let it slip away, that's disgusting."
In seven games with Tebow, the Broncos offence has 30 first-half points. They were blanked in this one, on the board only because of Mario Haggan's 16-yard interception return for a first-quarter score. Tebow's third turnover of the season, a sack by Jared Allen that forced a fumble with 39 seconds left before halftime, gave the Vikings three free points.
But they can't be counted out. Whether their unconventional quarterback is trying to complete a down-field pass or if they're flirting again with defeat, the Broncos haven't flinched.
"There were a lot of questions on the outside. Sometimes it gets built up like they were on the inside, but the one thing I will say is the guy wins," coach John Fox said. "He does it with his feet. He does it with his arm. He's young. He's just going to get better."
Harvin, a fellow former Florida star, said he was worried once Tebow got the ball late in the game.
"I was sure enough hoping we were going to get him, but I've been on his teams," Harvin said, adding: "He's a winner. He's a leader. All of the things you hear about, you may think it's too much, but that's what he is."
Tebow leads another rally
After serving as the backbone of Denver's resurgence, putting Tebow in position for all of those rallies, the Broncos gave up 489 yards. Toby Gerhart gained 91 yards on 21 carries. But they picked off Ponder twice, recovered his fumble and applied enough pressure to equalize the game.
"It's been fun, a fun ride," Haggan said. "This team is close, believes, has a lot of character, but we're not done."
Demaryius Thomas caught four passes for 144 yards and both touchdowns for the Broncos, who have won four games with Tebow by either four or three points. Thomas was wide open twice, with the coverage by Minnesota's depleted secondary breaking down often, but Tebow had to find him. Pushed out of the pocket with no one open, he ran left and delivered on on-target across-his-body throw to Thomas, who ran the rest of the way and dragged a couple of defenders into the end zone for a 41-yard score that cut the Minnesota lead to 22-21 late in the third.
"We put in a lot of work," Thomas said. "It's paid off. It's about that time."
During a dizzying display of back-and-forth touchdowns, with both Ponder and Tebow putting together their best games as pros. Ryan Longwell's third field goal, with 3:06 left, made it 32-29 Vikings, teeing another one up for Tebow.
He threw a wobbler that still landed on target, when Thomas hauled in a 40-yard completion. Thomas couldn't bring in the third-down pass at the goal line, but Prater tied the game with a 46-yarder before Ponder's second glaring mistake.
Harvin's second score, a 48-yard catch and run, was the first fourth-quarter touchdown given up by the Broncos in five games and made it 29-21 Minnesota. They averaged 15 points allowed over their previous four games.
But there went the Broncos again. Tebow hit Thomas for 42 yards, and Willis McGahee rumbled into the end zone from 24 yards out. Then Tebow took the snap on the 2-point conversion and rolled to his right and over the goal line to tie the game at 29.
Except for that play, he looked more like pocket passer on this afternoon, running only four times.
"It's crazy. Just try to do whatever they ask of me," Tebow said.