DENVER — Tim Tebow won on several fronts Sunday.
By rallying the Denver Broncos past the Houston Texans 24-23, the raw rookie from Florida secured not only his first victory as a pro but he won over the fans who have suffered through the franchise's worst slump in almost 40 years and were jeering the conservative play calling as the team trudged off the field at halftime.
"He definitely stepped up and gave the fans what they wanted," wide receiver Brandon Lloyd said. "And as a player, he gave us what we needed."
More importantly, Tebow took Denver (4-11) out of the running for the No. 1 draft pick in April, which figures to be Stanford star quarterback Andrew Luck.
John Elway, who is expected to join the Broncos soon as their chief football executive, is a big fan of the best passer Stanford has produced since, well, himself, and he said last week that Denver would have to seriously consider selecting Luck if he were available.
Now, Luck figures to be headed not to the Rocky Mountains but to the Blue Ridge Mountains as Carolina secured the top draft pick Sunday with wins by Denver and Cincinnati.
Tebow scored on a 6-yard scramble with three minutes left in his first home start, capping a comeback from a 17-0 halftime deficit.
"Things weren't going well early, but we kept fighting, kept believing in each other," Tebow said.
Matt Schaub was driving the Texans (5-10) for a go-ahead score when rookie cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson picked off a pass intended for wide-open tight end Owen Daniels, who had already caught eight passes for 73 yards and a score. But it was deflected at the line by Justin Bannan and settled into Thompson's arms at the Broncos 27 with just over a minute remaining.
"It was like a dream," Thompson said. "The ball was floating in the air so long. I had to go pluck it."
Schaub lamented that "if I can get that one in O.D.'s hands, he might score on that play."
The Texans were probably already in field-goal range. Neil Rackers had converted a 54-yarder that tied his career-longest field goal and then nailed a 57-yarder that tied the franchise mark, both in the third quarter.
Tebow turned the jeers from the crowd miffed at conservative play calls in the first half into delirious cheers by driving Denver for scores on each of its four second-half drives.
"I've never seen a winner lose. He's a winner," Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said. "And I expect him to win a lot of games as a pro quarterback. Hopefully, I'm around here to see him do it."
Tebow's future in Denver seems much more secure than Bailey's.
A nine-time Pro Bowl selection still at the top of his game, Bailey might have played his last snap for Denver if he has to sit out the season finale against San Diego next week after re-injuring his right heel. He'll be a free agent after this season.
But this was a night for the Broncos and their fans to celebrate Tebow's first pro win along with interim coach Eric Studesville's first triumph in three games since replacing Josh McDaniels and not to ponder Bailey's uncertain future.
Tebow's heroics helped the Broncos avoid a franchise-record 12th loss. He threw for 308 yards but when it mattered most, he used his legs to give the Broncos their first win since Nov. 14.
On second-and-goal from the 6, Tebow faked the quarterback draw, raised up to throw it but found Eddie Royal covered. So, he tucked the ball and sprinted toward the left pylon, beating defensive tackle Earl Mitchell into the end zone to give Denver its first lead at 24-23 with 3:02 remaining.
Tailback Correll Buckhalter's 23-yard catch and run on a screen pass from Tebow pulled Denver within striking distance at 23-17 with 10:55 left. Buckhalter was subbing for Knowshon Moreno, who injured his ribs in the first half.
Tebow's first home start drew such loud applause that he had to motion for the crowd to quiet down as he trotted onto the field for his first series. His first two throws went for 22 yards each, but his third throw to Lloyd was easily picked off by cornerback Jason Allen in the end zone.
"Terrible decision," Tebow said.
Even with Tebow starting ahead of Kyle Orton, the announced crowd was 67,974 with 5,717 no-shows.
And they booed the team off the field at halftime over its conservative playcalling.
The safe screen passes were replaced in the second half by deep throws that thrilled Tebow and the fans alike.
Tebow, who was 16 for 29, hit Jabar Gaffney for 50 yards on a deep post that set up Buckhalter's 6-yard TD run just four plays into the third quarter. He hit a leaping Lloyd for 41 yards on the next drive.
"I was excited about that — to be able to take some shots and be aggressive," Tebow said.
Rackers' 57-yarder gave Houston a 23-10 after three quarters, but for the sixth time in the last two months the Texans lost after being tied or holding the lead in the fourth quarter.
"It's the same old story," cornerback Glover Quin said.Comment on this story
Although Orton said he's been told Tebow would start the finale, neither Studesville nor Tebow would confirm that.
"We are going to enjoy this one right now," Studesville said.
NOTES: Jacoby Jones caught five passes for 115 yards in place of Houston star receiver Andre Johnson (ankle). ... Arian Foster, the league's leading rusher, gained 91 yards on 19 carries and scored a TD. He had 135 yards from scrimmage, giving him 2,030 for the season as he joined Priest Holmes as the only undrafted players in NFL history to record at least 2,000.