Denver (AP) — Kyle Orton won't come out and say it, calling his much-anticipated return to Denver on Sunday just another chance to take the field and play a football game.
It's a whole lot more than that.
With a victory over the Broncos, Orton, who was masterful in ending the Green Bay Packers' perfect season two weeks ago, perhaps can secure starter's money and a long-term deal he's been longing for as he heads off into unrestricted free agency. And he could also help Kansas City Chiefs interim coach Romeo Crennel secure his own future.
Perhaps biggest of all, Orton can stick it to the team that benched him after he finally caved under the weight of Tebowmania and the Broncos stumbled to a 1-4 start.
The stakes are even higher for Tim Tebow, who's gone 7-3 with a series of fourth-quarter comebacks that galvanized a city and captivated the league. Tebow has stumbled himself the last two weeks, committing five turnovers in back-to-back losses that have rendered Sunday's reunion a high-stakes showdown.
If Tebow can beat the guy he couldn't beat out in training camp, the Broncos (8-7) will win the AFC West and clinch their first playoff berth since 2005, when Mike Shanahan and Jake Plummer were still around. They could lose and still get in, if San Diego wins at Oakland, but the Broncos don't want to leave it up to anyone else to bail them out.
A victory over the Chiefs (6-9) would also validate Broncos boss John Elway's dangerous decision to release Orton on Nov. 22 knowing full well the Chiefs had lost Matt Cassel to a hand injury and were likely to put in a waiver claim.
They did, saving the Broncos $2.6 million in salary — the same amount they'd paid him to ride pine for six weeks after his demotion.
Orton could make them pay an even heftier price if he keeps the Broncos out of the postseason party. That would make Denver's front office look foolish for granting him his request to be released and would stamp Elway's first — and otherwise successful — season as an NFL executive with a black eye over a blunder that could long hang over the franchise that has won just one playoff game since Elway hoisted the Super Bowl trophy in 1999.
If the Broncos win, Orton is a mere footnote in this scintillating season that's included four consecutive fourth-quarter comebacks, a 1,000-yard bounce-back season by Willis McGahee, clutch kicks galore by Matt Prater, and a defensive revival led by Pro Bowlers Champ Bailey, Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller.
At 2-5, the Broncos appeared headed for another debacle like last year's franchise-worst 4-12 finish, but they revamped their offense to fit Tebow's unorthodox skill set and surged to the top of their division.
So, here comes Orton vs. Tebow, although both teams cringe at the very mention of it.
"It's the Broncos vs. the Chiefs, that's how we look at it," Dumervil said. "Yeah, Kyle was here and maybe it would be more sensitive to him, but for the guys here in the locker room, we're worried about getting ourselves in the playoffs."
"I don't pay attention because I don't care about all that," Broncos safety Raheem Moore added of the Orton vs. Tebow hype. "The focus should be on the Chiefs and Broncos. Forget about all that jibber jabber. Let's give the fans what they want to see and let's compete, and may the best man win."
Orton is clearly the better passer, Tebow the better scrambler. In almost every other category, Orton is better — except under pressure. That's when it's Tebow Time. He's guided the Broncos to victory six times when they were trailing in the second half, winning once as time expired and three more games in overtime.
After winning his first six starts for the Broncos — and the hype was nothing like when Tebow won six straight this season — Orton went just 6-21 in Denver. He never endeared himself to the fans, who didn't really like him first because he wasn't Jay Cutler and then because he wasn't Tim Tebow.
Win or lose, Orton was serenaded this summer and fall with chants of "Tebow! Tebow! Tebow!"
"And you get tired of that, and you're the starting quarterback and you go out there and it's all 15 jerseys and he runs out there and everyone's cheering," Elway said recently. "That's why it was good for Kyle to get a new start in Kansas City. And we knew we may have to face him down the line and we kind of took that risk."
Orton asked for a trade last offseason and the Broncos tried to accommodate him. But talks with the Miami Dolphins fizzled, so new coach John Fox threw open the quarterback competition in camp and Orton won it hands-down.
Then came a loss to Oakland in the opener when Orton dropped the slick football with a tight end open in the end zone for the go-ahead score late in the fourth quarter. It was all downhill from there.
Now, Orton has a chance, deliberately this time, to hurt the Broncos again.
"I think when you look at it, we don't want to be in the situation where we're at, eliminated and all that stuff. That's disappointing," Orton said. "But the fact remains in the NFL you get 16 weeks to prove yourself to your teammates and you know, that's not a lot of chances. That's how I'm going to look at that. It's just another week to come out and prove my preparation and play with my teammates."
We all know better, and so does Crennel, who said he's certain Orton is jacked up to play the Broncos.
"Sure. I mean, he's human. Hey, you would be jacked up if you were going up against your old team," Crennel said. "I mean, we're all human. But the thing is, I think in this game, our players have to understand that it's a team sport and one guy generally doesn't do it all by himself. Sometimes one guy can make the plays that help you win, but you can't do it without your teammates."
Crennel warned his players not to view this game as anything more than a division rivalry. He took Orton aside and admonished him not to get too pumped up over the reunion or the revenge angle.
"Every player that I know wants to play good against his old team. He would like to play good and I'm sure he'd like to win the game," Crennel said. "That's what I told him this morning. I said, 'Your job is to help your team win. It's not Kyle vs. the Broncos, it's the Chiefs vs. the Broncos.' I think guys need to be reminded of that sometimes."
Not that he sensed Orton was a mess emotionally.
"I'd have done the same with any player, whether it's a defensive lineman, a running back, anybody playing against their former team," Crennel said, "because over my years, that's what I've seen, guys getting over-hyped playing against their former team.
Crennel said he senses a reinvigorated quarterback now that Orton is out from under Tebow's long shadow.
"Sure. I mean, any quarterback doesn't want to be looking over his shoulder and he doesn't want to hear the clamor for another quarterback," Crennel said. "He wants to be the guy. So, I think that coming here gives him an opportunity to be more relaxed, to run the offense that we have in place and then just do the best he can."
Playing spoiler isn't much fun, but you can bet Orton would take satisfaction in getting the last laugh at Mile High on Sunday.
"I think you got to worry about yourself. There's so much you get to play for every week, and just look at it that way," Orton said. "There are so many things to play for."
Pride and payback among them.
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