Moments after the New England Patriots smashed his Denver Broncos, Tim Tebow stood before a wall of reporters and said exactly what anyone who has been paying attention already knew he was going to say. The Patriots, he stressed, "came out and they played well and they executed well and you've got to give them a lot of credit."
Then Tebow interrupted himself to deal with a higher matter: "But before I talk about that, I just want, you know, to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and thank my teammates for the effort that they put forth, not just tonight but this whole season."
Please note one crucial detail in this thanksgiving statement.
In a recent Poll Position survey, 43.3 percent of the respondents said they believed divine intervention played some role in Tebow's roller-coaster season, including that stunning Broncos playoff victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Meanwhile, 42.3 percent said God was not helping Tebow out.
This schism is one reason Tebow critics enjoyed asking some obvious questions after the Patriots loss: So what happened? Did God tune out all of Tebow's prayers?
People can laugh all they want, noted the leader of a Denver-area megachurch that has long had its share of Bronco players in the pews. The key is that Tebow -- as is the norm for athletes who are believers -- always offers prayers of thanksgiving after losses, as well as victories.
"If people have been listening to anything that Tim Tebow has been saying, then they know that he never prays to win. He has said that publicly many times," said the Rev. Brad Strait, senior pastor of Cherry Creek Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Englewood.
"The key is that many people who keep commenting on this situation don't know very much about why believers pray. It seems that they think the main reason, or even the only reason, that people pray is to ask God to give them things. ... It's that old Santa Claus equals Jesus thing. You mix all of that up with football and this is what you get."
In this case, what you get is controversy about a hunky missionary kid who continues to confound his critics on and off the playing field. Meanwhile, choirs of Tebow fans -- saith an early January ESPN poll -- have made him the America's most popular athlete.
His life began, of course, in a dangerous pregnancy and his mother's decision to reject doctors' advice to abort provided the hook for a Super Bowl spot in 2010. Tebow's drive to excel in high-school football -- while being home-schooled -- fueled headlines long before his two national championships and Heisman Trophy win as a Florida Gator. Then there was the 2009 press conference in which he cheerfully answered a question about his sex life, pledging to remain chaste until marriage. This put Tebow on the radar of every comic with a microphone.
This recent blast by liberal talk-radio star Mike Malloy hit all the crucial notes.
"Tim Tebow, of course, is a massive irritation," he said. "God, I hate crappy-ass displays of public religiosity, especially, especially, in a sporting event. This to me is vile, just vile, for these fundamentalist Christians to find divine intervention -- in a pass for a football game, in Denver, Colorado? Oh well, it's their religion, not mine."
On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that Tebow doesn't believe God is pulling strings for him, said philosopher Douglas Groothuis of Denver Seminary, where the student body includes Tebow's brother, Peter.
The fact that Tebow gives thanks after a game doesn't imply that he prayed for victory before the kickoff, said Groothuis.
"He always says that he is giving thanks to 'my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,' which says, to me, that he is thanking God for his salvation. Then again, he could be thanking God that he is a professional football player and that he has a national platform. He could be thanking God that he didn't get hurt during the game," he said.
"If you look at this logically, it doesn't make sense for him to thank God after a loss if he has been doing what people seem to think he has been doing -- which is praying to win. ... There's one other point that's important. Tebow isn't cursing God after he loses, that's for sure."