DENVER -- He kneels in prayer at times when many players would be pounding their chest, and is winning with a style the experts insist cannot work for long.
Tim Tebow's formula for success and fame is not typical for the NFL. So, is it a football miracle? Or the perfect blend of luck, timing and big plays? That's the debate that makes the tale of the Denver Broncos quarterback one of the most compelling stories in America these days.
Hardly anyone stands on neutral ground when it comes to the purveyor of this unorthodox mix of throwing mechanics, big-time sports and devout religion, a 24-year-old Christian who is the subject of comedy skits on Saturday nights and serious sermons on Sunday mornings.
But what most people will agree on is that it's hard to take your eyes off Tebow these days – a man who unapologetically uses football to take his message beyond the field while also taking his team on an unexpected ride through the playoffs.
"I'm just very thankful for the platform that God has given me, and the opportunity to be a quarterback for the Denver Broncos – what a great organization," Tebow said after his latest shocker – an 80-yard touchdown pass on the first play of overtime Sunday to beat Pittsburgh 29-23 in the wild-card playoffs.
The play, according to Twitter, spawned a record 9,420 tweets per second.
Not lost in that flurry was that Tebow threw for 316 yards and set an NFL playoff record by averaging 31.6 yards. That's "316," as in John 3:16, one of the most-often cited Bible passages for Christians, the most widely searched item on Google for much of Sunday night into Monday, and the message Tebow used to stencil into the eyeblack he wore when he played college ball at Florida.
Not that referencing the Bible or thanking God is anything new in sports. After NFL games for years, a small group of athletes gather around midfield, kneel, hold hands and pray. That devotion has been largely ignored or even criticized by media and fans.
"The thing with Tebow is that he seems more genuinely religious than most athletes, who seem to be religious to win games," said Clifford Putney, author of the book "Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America, 1880-1920."
That might help explain why Tebow's gestures are not being overlooked, but part of an ever-growing sensation. It started building when he won the Heisman Trophy and two national titles at Florida, though he was steeped in strong religion well before that – born in the Philippines to missionary parents.
More recently, he introduced mass culture to the art of "Tebowing" – kneeling on one knee, elbow perched on the other, fist to forehead – while chaos is erupting around him. The practice now has its own website, with pictures of people Tebowing in a research lab, in front of the Sydney Opera House, in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, etc.
Entertaining as all that has been, it has made fans and the media rethink the way they judge and cover their sports stars. Reporting that a player was including the Lord in his postgame analysis has long been widely thought of as trite and inappropriate, something to simply skip over when typing in the quotes.
Tebow's five fourth-quarter comebacks and his four overtime victories – each more improbable than the last – and his steady, genuine, yet somehow unassuming insistence on bringing God into the conversation has forced an uncomfortable question upon those who want to make it only about what happens between the lines.
Does God really care about football?
"Not one whit," said Joe Price, a professor in the religious studies department at Whittier College. "But does God care about people who play football? You betcha."
In a sports season filled with unsavory stories – NFL and NBA labor wars, child sex abuse scandals at Penn State and Syracuse, and a baseball MVP accused of using steroids – Tebow is seen by many as a sports star who really could be a role model, contrary to what Charles Barkley or anyone else might say.
But the Tebow angst still exists, in large part because there is seemingly no way to analyze what he does on a football field without religion seeping into at least some part of that analysis.
Opine about his unorthodox throwing motion – widely derided by scouts and coaches and seemingly more suited for tossing a boomerang than a football – and the quick assumption becomes that you might not like him because of his religious beliefs.
Defend him as a winner who cares less about conventionality and depends more on moxie than mechanics – well, then you must be drinking the Kool-Aid, a Tebow fan because you're in line with his Christian beliefs.
"I still have doubts about him as a long-term answer, as I think most reasonable people do," said radio host Sandy Clough, who has been manning Denver's sports talk shows for more than 30 years. "Does one game, if he plays well, not only invalidate his play from the other (bad) games but anything anyone's ever said about it? Well, no it doesn't. It's all part of the mix. It's a fascinating mix. He's the toughest player I've ever had to analyze, because there are all these extraneous factors you have to bring in."
Sensing the excitement and loving his message, Tebow is also being courted by Republican presidential candidates. The quarterback recently told The Associated Press he's been asked by more than one of the contenders for his support. He wouldn't name names, but did say he'd declined the offer.
"I think you have to have so much trust in who you support, just from product endorsements to endorsing a candidate because if that person or company does something (bad), it reflects on you," said Tebow, who's a pitchman for Nike, Jockey and FRS energy drink.
Tebow has, however, placed himself in the political realm before – two Super Bowls ago when he starred in a Focus on the Family commercial with his mother sharing the story of how she gave birth to him in the Philippines in 1987 after spurning a doctor's advice to have an abortion for medical reasons. After being criticized for that ad, he didn't do an encore and instead tries to toe the line of showing his religion without shoving it down people's throats.
That hasn't stopped people from mocking him – and worse.
After Tebow was particularly bad in an ugly loss to Buffalo on Dec. 24, comedian and talk show host Bill Maher sent out a tweet that basked in the QB's misfortune, blaming Jesus for the loss. "And on Xmas Eve! Somewhere in hell Satan is tebowing, saying to Hitler `Hey, Buffalo's killing them,'" Maher tweeted.
Maher, in turn, was roundly ripped for the post.
Less toxic was the recent skit on "Saturday Night Live," where "Jesus" materializes in the locker room with an actor portraying Tebow, admits he is pulling some strings during these Bronco games, then after being told the New England Patriots are next on the schedule, suggests Tebow substitute his playbook, "the holy Bible," for one with some Xs and Os.
The "SNL" Jesus also concedes that he, personally, prays to the Broncos place-kicker, Matt Prater, whose excellence has defined what the Tebow sensation has been about for most of this season: a bunch of teammates, motivated by a less-than-perfect leader who never gives up, coming together and picking each other up when the going gets tough.
A great story line that has held most of the year.
The twist on Sunday, though, was that for the first time this season, it could reasonably be argued that Tebow was a one-man show. In the win over Pittsburgh, he completed five passes of 30 yards or more. And with his defense struggling, he threw a perfect strike for the game-winner to receiver Demaryius Thomas, who didn't have to change his stride and, thus, ran untouched into the end zone.
"He was the same Tim, calm and collected," Thomas said. "He took it one play at a time and was in the huddle and said, `It's either we win or we go home.'"
AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton contributed to this report.