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NFL Preview - Kansas City (6-9) at Denver (8-7)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - They're all chirping the company lines.
Whether it's quarterback Tim Tebow, head coach John Fox or vice president John Elway on the Denver Broncos' side, or the man the team spurned a month ago -- new Kansas City Chiefs signal-caller Kyle Orton -- no one claims the November divorce makes the Week 17 matchup between the clubs any more meaningful.
But when push comes to shove at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Sunday, the truth may set them free.
Winners just once in five early-season games with Orton at the helm, the Denver football brain trust elected to jettison the 63-start veteran in favor of second-year man Tebow, who'd been a controversial first-round pick of soon-to- be ex-head coach Josh McDaniels a season earlier.
Rather than the quick plummet many forecasted with a novelty act under center, the Broncos instead reeled off seven wins in eight games under Tebow en route to putting themselves in control when it comes to capturing the AFC West title and securing an unlikely playoff berth.
A win Sunday guarantees Denver a spot in the six-team conference tournament and a home game a week later in the Wild Card round. A loss would necessitate further help to seal the deal, in the form of an Oakland Raiders' loss to visiting San Diego in a game kicking off at the same time.
Short of a chance at earning his own postseason berth, it's the sort of spoiler role any castoff like Orton would relish. Any castoff prone to admit such things, that is.
But in Orton�s case, it's simply not happening.
"It's just another week for me to come out and prove my preparation and play," he said.
Meanwhile, for those looking for tasty jabs from the Broncos' side, forget it.
"We knew we may have to face him down the line and we kind of took that risk," Elway said of the decision to waive Orton on Nov. 22.
From Tebow, it was no more inflammatory.
"I think it's the Denver Broncos and the Kansas City Chiefs," he said about the game's storyline. "That's a great rivalry and it'll be a great game. [I'm] excited we get to play at home in front of our fans. I think that as a player, as a quarterback, as someone who has dreamed of that his whole life, it'll be exciting to have one game, one last game, one last opportunity to make the playoffs."
The best material, as it turned out, came from an offensive lineman.
"I mean, I love Kyle, but I couldn't care less," Denver's Zane Beadles said about facing his former teammate. "It's the Broncos versus the Chiefs. We've got to beat the Chiefs to get in the playoffs. And it doesn't matter who's on their team."
Tebow threw three interceptions and lost a fumble in the Broncos' 40-14 loss at Buffalo this past Saturday, completing just 13-of-30 passes in Denver's second straight defeat after six straight wins. A loss to Kansas City and an Oakland win would yield a sixth consecutive playoff miss.
The Broncos' last postseason game was a 34-17 setback to Pittsburgh in the 2005 AFC Championship.
"You don't get that chance too often, to win one game and make it to the playoffs," Broncos wide receiver Eddie Royal said. "And a lot of us know the feeling of watching the playoffs at home. We don't want that feeling, so we've got to do everything in our power to make sure that's not us this year."
Kansas City holds a 55-47 lead in its all-time series with Denver, with the two AFC West rivals having split their annual home-and-home set in each of the past three seasons. The Broncos came through with a 17-10 road victory over the Chiefs back on Nov. 13 and have dominated Kansas City in the Mile High City as of late, having prevailed in nine of the last 10 matchups between the teams held in Denver. The Chiefs did halt an eight-game road losing streak to the Broncos with a 44-24 triumph in 2009, but were 49-29 losers at Sports Authority Field last season in a game in which Orton threw four touchdown passes for Denver. The Broncos' last season sweep of Kansas City took place in 2007, while the Chiefs' most recent win over Denver was a 10-6 home decision in 2010.
The two former AFL franchises have squared off just once in the postseason since the 1970 merger, with the Broncos claiming a 14-10 victory in Kansas City during a 1997 AFC Divisional Playoff.
Fox has won all three of his previous encounters with the Chiefs as a head coach, with the first two coming during his tenure with the Carolina Panthers from 2002-10. Kansas City interim sideline boss Romeo Crennel went 0-2 against Denver while at the helm of Cleveland from 2005-08, and his Browns also lost to Fox's Panthers during a 2006 head-to-head bout between the two head coaches.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
Orton started 33 games in two-plus seasons with the Broncos and passed for 8,263 yards with 49 touchdowns, 27 interceptions and an 86.4 passer rating during that time frame. In two starts with Kansas City, he is averaging 229.5 passing yards per game, and posted his 11th career 300-yard passing effort of his career in last week's 16-13 overtime loss to Oakland. Orton also has a 102.7 quarterback rating in the fourth quarter in his two starts with the Chiefs. Running back Thomas Jones needs 58 rushing yards to surpass Jamal Lewis (10,607) for 21st place on the NFL's all-time list in that category, while backfield mate Dexter McCluster had a career-high 89 receiving yards last week. Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe (1,066 receiving yards) has reached 1,000 receiving yards for the second consecutive season and third time in his career. He needs 97 yards on Sunday to surpass his career-best of 1,162 in 2010. Bowe had a career-high in receptions (13) and receiving yards (186) in last season's loss at Denver.
Broncos linebacker Von Miller leads AFC rookies and ranks second among NFL first-year players with 11 1/2 sacks, trailing only San Francisco's Aldon Smith's 14. Miller needs one sack to become the sixth rookie to reach 12 1/2 since 1982, and has the most sacks by a Denver rookie since the statistic became official that season. End Elvis Dumervil aims for a ninth straight game with at least a half-sack this week, while nickel back Chris Harris has 69 tackles and an interception in Denver's 15 games and end Robert Ayers has 36 tackles, two sacks and a fumble recovery on the season. Harris is questionable to play this week after sustaining a pinched nerve in his neck in the Buffalo game, however.
Statistically speaking, the Chiefs are 31st in scoring (13.7 ppg), 25th in both total yards (312.8 ypg) and passing (193.7 ypg) and 12th in rushing (119.1 ypg). On defense, the Broncos are 25th in points allowed (25.5 ppg), 23rd in yards allowed (362.9 ypg), 20th in pass defense (235.3 ypg) and 25th against the run (127.7).
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
Tebow is 7-3 as starter in 2011 with 16 touchdowns (11 passing, 5 rushing) accounted for. In two career games against Kansas City, the second-year sensation has two touchdown passes, zero interceptions and a 102.8 passer rating along with two rushing scores. The club averages an NFL-best 161.1 rushing yards per game, while running back Willis McGahee (1,054 rushing yards) has totaled 1,000 yards on the ground in a season for the fourth time in his career. Counterpart Lance Ball posted a career-best 96 rushing yards in Denver's Week 10 win over the Chiefs. Since Week 13, wide receiver Demaryius Thomas is tied with Detroit's Calvin Johnson for the NFL lead in receiving yards per game (103.5), while fellow wideout Eric Decker had a career-long 56- yard touchdown catch in the Broncos' last game against Kansas City. Tight end Daniel Fells posted his third touchdown reception of the season last week, tying a career-high from 2009 while with St. Louis.
Chiefs outside linebacker Tamba Hali (12 sacks) needs two sacks to join Neil Smith and Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas as only the Chiefs to register at least 14 in two separate seasons. Cornerback Javier Arenas posted the second interception of his career last week, and also leads the AFC and ranks third in the league in punt return average (13.4). Up front, veteran nose tackle Kelly Gregg has 19 tackles and a sack on the year.
By the numbers, Denver is 22nd in scoring (20.4 ppg), 23rd in total yards (320.0 ypg), 31st in passing (158.9 ypg) and first in rushing (161.1 ypg). On defense, the Chiefs are 20th in points allowed (22.3 ppg), 15th in yards permitted (337.8 ypg), ninth in pass defense (211.4 ypg) and 23rd against the run (126.4 ypg).
KEYS TO THE GAME
Stalled momentum. The Broncos gave up 13 or fewer points four times in their six-game winning streak, but they've since surrendered 40 or more in consecutive games. That's the first time it's happened to the franchise since a three-game sequence while in the AFL in 1964.
Job interview. Promoted from defensive coordinator to interim head coach when Todd Haley was fired last month, Crennel can end the season with two wins in three games and perhaps boost his chances at earning the permanent position. His players are aware of that fact as well, which should give the Chiefs some motivation despite being out of the playoff mix.
Sliding scale. Widely critiqued for having a non-traditional quarterbacking style, Tebow has completed only 24-of-52 passes while throwing for just one touchdown in the last two games. He was 2-for-8 for 69 yards and a score in Denver's 17-10 win at Kansas City in November, but may need to be more effective with the Chiefs preparing to key on containing the ground attack.
Strip away the fun subplots and it's a matchup of two AFC West foes who in spite of their contrasting postseason possibilities, aren't all that different. The Broncos have the "more to play for" advantage, while the Chiefs enter off a better performance in the last two games. Add in Orton's motivation and an inconveniently skidding Denver defense, and it's a rough end to the Broncos' fairy tale.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chiefs 24, Broncos 17
12/29 15:47:28 ET