Broncos in playoffs despite 7-3 loss to Chiefs
Published: Sunday, January 1, 2012 at 7:56 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 1, 2012 at 7:56 p.m.
DENVER — Tim Tebow has always done things the unorthodox way. Making the playoffs was no different.
He fell short in his latest comeback bid, yet his Denver Broncos are still going to the playoffs.
Kyle Orton got his revenge in leading the Kansas City Chiefs to a 7-3 win over Denver on Sunday, but it's the Broncos who clinched the AFC West and are headed to the postseason.
After congratulating their former starting quarterback, the Broncos celebrated the end to their six-year playoff drought once San Diego beat Oakland 38-26 later Sunday.
Losers of their last three games, the Broncos finished 8-8, same as the Raiders. They won their first division title since 2005 on a tiebreaker.
So, everybody at Mile High got what they wanted even though Tebow couldn't beat the guy he failed to beat out in training camp.
Tebow, though, got the last laugh.
Orton, who also handed Green Bay its only loss, went 2-1 in Kansas City. His steady play likely raised his stock as he prepares to enter free agency. And he might have secured interim coach Romeo Crennel's future.
Best of all, he beat the team that benched him after he finally caved under the weight of Tebowmania and the Broncos stumbled to a 1-4 start.
The Broncos revamped their offense to fit Tebow's unorthodox skill set and surged to the top of their division. They released Orton in the midst of a 7-1 run that included a series of fourth-quarter comebacks that captivated the football world.
Never before in the four-plus decades since the AFL-NFL merger has a starting quarterback returned to start a game in the same season against his former team.
Orton didn't do much but he didn't have to. The game's only touchdown came on Dexter McCluster's 21-yard scamper with 11 seconds left in the first quarter.
Orton's 18-yard completion to Jonathan Baldwin on third-and-9 from his own 12 with five minutes left in the game was as big a play as he had all afternoon as this was a battle of field position and the Punting Colquitt Bros. more than anything else.
The Broncos got the ball back at their own 20 with 3:59 left.
Tebow time? Not this time.
The Broncos were forced to punt with 2:37 remaining, but Orton was no better and the Chiefs punted it back to them, but because coach John Fox had mismanaged the final minute of the first half — calling a timeout and then deciding against a long field goal — the Broncos needed to go 84 yards with 58 seconds left instead of just needing to get into field goal range for another game-winner by Matt Prater.
Tebow, who had completed four passes all afternoon with the Broncos running 47 times for 216 yards, including 145 by Willis McGahee, suddenly had to chuck it.
And he was intercepted by cornerback Brandon Carr with 8 seconds left.
Orton took a knee and the game was over.
Tebow finished 6 of 22 for 60 yards and added 16 yards on six carries.
The Broncos saved $2.6 million by releasing Orton just before Thanksgiving but Orton nearly made them pay an even heftier price for that decision, completing 15 of 29 passes for 180 yards against his former team and connecting with Dwayne Bowe six times for 93 yards against Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey.
Had Denver not backed into the playoffs, boss John Elway's dangerous decision to release Orton at midseason would have gone down as one of the biggest blunders in Broncos history.
And Fox would have been second-guessed for passing up on a 57-yard field goal attempt in the first half even though his kicker is the best in the business from long distance and points were at a premium.
Fox had called a timeout with 36 seconds left in the half and there was too much time on the clock for the Chiefs to score if Prater had missed.
The Broncos finally scored on Prater's 38-yarder in the third quarter.
Javier Arenas' muffed punt at his own 20 in the first quarter and Matthew Willis recovered for Denver. But the Broncos went nowhere and settled for the field goal.
Coming off the worst game of his career, a four-turnover blunder at Buffalo, Tebow killed Denver's only promising drive of the first half when he coughed up the football as he was trying to reach across the Chiefs 10-yard line for the first down and linebacker Justin Houston scooped up the loose ball.
Fox chose not to send out Prater for a 57-yard field goal attempt with 31 seconds left in the first half even though Prater is 12 of 16 from 50-plus yards, the best in the league since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
The Broncos lost two offensive starters in the first half when right guard Chris Kuper, the stalwart on an otherwise young line, injured his left leg and fullback Spencer Larsen hurt a knee. Because they had deactivated Austin Sylvester, their only other fullback, the Broncos had to use two tight ends after that.