January 13th, 2012
12:12 PM GMT
London (CNN) – Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow faces the game of his life on Saturday. His Broncos play the New England Patriots to decide who reaches the AFC championship game. But for Tebow himself, it's the game that will decide if he can be sold as America's next sporting icon.
On paper, Tebow is no marketing superstar. The numbers say he's - for the most part - a pretty average quarterback. He's rode his luck in most of the games he's won, and the public displays of his faith that routinely follow seem to split fans down the middle. With a five-year, $11.25 million contract, he's also not topping any rich lists anytime soon.
But all true sporting phenomena have something more special, more significant than a big paycheck. LeBron James has it. Roger Federer has it. Tiger Woods had it. Thierry Henry just regained it. Like it or not, Tim Tebow has it too - star power.
For all the questions about his performance on the field, Tebow's star power off it has never been in doubt. When his Broncos coach refused to give him the starting quarterback job, local businesses in Denver felt compelled to put up billboards calling for “Tebow Time” to begin. A recent marketing poll rated Tebow a more influential celebrity than Tom Hanks or Lady Gaga. His memoirs, “Through My Eyes” quickly became one of the best-selling sports books AND religion books of 2011 - it's still in the New York Times' best-sellers list. It just goes on and on. And on.
Most importantly, he somehow keeps winning games. And even those fans who despise him can't seem to get enough of the ongoing circus. There's just one problem though. Until now, the hype has outstripped the talent. If Tebow had thrown one yard for every thousand words written about him this season, he would have broken every NFL record going. Instead he became the lucky winner, a slapstick figure of fun improbably blundering his way into the playoffs.
Last week's outstanding performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers changed all that. Throwing for 316 yards (the same number as his favorite Bible passage), he looked every inch a star. Now he has the chance to prove he really is one, by beating another legitimate icon - the Patriots' Tom Brady.
We already know the world is watching. During that Steelers game, Tebow's game-winning touchdown became the second-most tweeted event of all time. Though even with such ridiculous momentum behind him, victory now is far from assured - indeed, the Pats have already given Tebow's Broncos a schooling earlier this season.
This time though, the stakes have been raised. Saturday's game in New England is about more than the AFC title race. If Tebow loses, it condemns him back to the land of novelty, as a quarterback curiosity. If he wins, the dollar signs will flash for the coronation of America's next sports phenomenon. And who's going to bet against him?