DENVER — 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!"