MINNEAPOLIS – Tim Tebow's first two series had rookie written all over them. Then he started playing with the veteran-like poise that helped him get drafted in the first round by Denver in the first place.
Tebow outplayed Minnesota's Tarvaris Jackson in the backup quarterback comparison, but the Vikings forced four first-half turnovers and beat the Broncos 31-24 on Thursday night in the preseason finale for both teams.
Tebow fumbled his first snap, Erin Henderson found the ball and scooted into the end zone from 35 yards out for the Vikings. The 2007 Heisman Trophy winner from Florida then threw a wobbler over the middle that Tyrell Johnson easily intercepted and returned for 41 yards to set up a field goal.
"The turnovers in this league will kill you," Broncos coach Josh McDaniels said. "We know that and he does, too."
Minnesota's defense also stopped four of five fourth-down attempts by Denver, including an overthrow by Tebow out of bounds from the Vikings 37 late in the third quarter to give the home team the ball back.
Marquez Branson and Bruce Hall lost fumbles on Denver's next two drives, and Minnesota led 17-7 at halftime despite a meager 54 yards of offense and a weak, out-of-order performance by Jackson and the second-stringers.
Tebow, though, found a rhythm in the second quarter and — despite the turnovers and some carelessness with the ball as he scrambled around in the backfield — finished 12 for 16 for 167 yards and one touchdown.
"I try to have a short memory and move on and just keep playing," Tebow said.
His favorite target was Matthew Willis, who caught five passes for 122 yards and a score.
"Tim is obviously a competitor. He's a winner," said fellow rookie Eric Decker, a Minnesota native. "He just tried to settle the guys down and say, 'Hey, you know what? Forget about what happened. Let's focus on the next play. Let's execute. Take care of your responsibilities.' And he took leadership in the huddle."
Decker had 10 catches for 114 yards for Denver.
"Home sweet home," he said.
Tebow also had 21 yards rushing on four attempts, giving the Broncos plenty to consider in their decision about whether to use him or Brady Quinn as the primary backup to Kyle Orton. Orton played two series and led Denver to a touchdown run by LenDale White, who later left the game because of an ankle injury.
The drive included soft coverage by Lito Sheppard on a first-down catch by Brandon Lloyd and a pass interference penalty on Asher Allen. Sheppard and Allen are competing for a starting cornerback spot, with incumbent Cedric Griffin and rookie Chris Cook recovering from injuries for the Vikings.
Vikings coach Brad Childress declined to name the starter, or reveal a prognosis for Cook.
"We don't ever give those guys timetables. Everybody heals differently," he said.
All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady saw his first action for the Broncos, a major step in his recovery from a knee injury he sustained in April, but he looked slow and was beaten badly a few times by Brian Robison on the pass rush. Starting right tackle Ryan Harris, who grew up in St. Paul, hurt his ankle and didn't return.
Correll Buckhalter also made his preseason debut for Denver in the backfield, catching a pair of passes for 26 yards to give the Broncos another sign of progressive health following a training camp that seemed to revolve around the training room.
The Vikings, who have just one week to get ready for their Sept. 9 season opener at defending champion New Orleans, held out 20 of their 22 starters. Brett Favre watched in one of his favorite outfits — hat, T-shirt, shorts, sneakers — and saw Jackson struggle.
Though tight ends Jeff Dugan and Garrett Mills dropped wide-open passes on the first possession, Jackson finished 2 for 8 for 2 yards, against a mix of first and second team defense by the Broncos. In four preseason games, Jackson went 12 for 26 for 60 yards. Though the fans could easily have been targeting the entire offense on an ugly night, Jackson heard boos a few times as he jogged off the field following a failed third down.
"Regardless of the situation, regardless of why they're booing ... I can't do nothing about it," Jackson said.
Asked if the booing bothers him, Jackson said: "It got to a point now where I don't even care."
He's still in the No. 2 spot, though. Childress has not wavered with that.
"I've seen a lot of him throughout training camp, and I kind of know where he's at," the coach said.
Vikings rookie Joe Webb, however, had a much better night. Cheered as he took the field in the third quarter, the sixth-round draft pick went 5 for 9 for 100 yards, a touchdown and an ill-advised interception. He also took off for a 41-yard carry, and his first completion — 14 yards — was longer than the yardage from Jackson and Sage Rosenfels combined.
Webb's pass was picked off by Alphonso Smith, but Webb ran him down and saved a touchdown with a hard tackle, forcing Smith to limp off the field for a second time in the game. Smith later lost a shoe and fell down during a 62-yard touchdown pass from Webb to Javon Walker. The Vikings have a dilemma this weekend, whether to keep four quarterbacks on the roster or try to sneak Webb through waivers and onto to the practice squad.
"It'd be hard to keep four and not keep another good football player on the roster," Childress said.
Said Webb: "It's tough. A lot of guys can't sleep enough."