Broncos in playoffs despite 7-3 loss to Chiefs

Associated Press
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Kyle Orton (8) reacts after a first down against the Denver Broncos in the second quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2012, in Denver.  (AP Photo/Joe Mahoney)
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Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Kyle Orton (8) reacts after a first down against the Denver Broncos in …

DENVER (AP) — Tim Tebow had plenty more gaffes — and one last laugh.

Despite a second straight dismal performance and two more turnovers by Tebow, the Broncos were celebrating a trip to the playoffs Sunday after losing 7-3 to Kyle Orton and the Kansas City Chiefs.

Their six-year playoff drought is history.

Even though Tebow completed just 6 of 22 passes for 60 yards, killed a promising drive with a red zone fumble and capped an awful afternoon with an interception in the waning seconds, he's the one preparing for the playoffs while Orton regroups from a trying season and gets ready for free agency.

Tebow couldn't beat the guy he couldn't beat out in training camp.

"It's obviously a little bittersweet right now," Tebow said. "We would have loved to have won that game to have a little momentum going into the playoffs. But I think it's still a special thing what we accomplished, to come back and win the AFC West is very special."

Orton outperformed Tebow every time they were on the football field together, from training camp through Sunday's season finale. In between, however, Orton caved under the weight of Tebowmania and was benched by the Broncos before being released and grabbed off waivers by the Chiefs.

Orton had laid low all week but he finally admitted after the game that this game had special meaning to him, even though it was for pride and payback and not the playoffs.

"I can't hide that," he said. "But I congratulate those guys. They're in. I congratulate them and I look forward to next year."

The Broncos (8-8) will face the Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) Sunday at Mile High, their first home playoff game since Ben Roethlisberger beat Jake Plummer in the AFC title game following the 2005 season.

"We go out there and perform like we did the past three weeks, we don't stand a chance," Champ Bailey said. "We've got to get better."

In a hurry.

Tebow has turned the ball over seven times in Denver's three-game losing streak and the Broncos haven't managed a single takeaway since they beat Chicago in overtime on Dec. 11 for their fourth straight fourth-quarter comeback.

"We'll, we're AFC West champs," Broncos coach John Fox retorted. "It doesn't matter how you do it. Once you get into the dance, they can't kick you out."

But you can get bounced pretty quickly, something the Broncos know is a strong possibility if they don't get their act together.

"Everything is mediocre," Bailey said. "We've got to get better. If we want to make any kind of fuss in the playoffs, we've got to get better."

The Broncos begrudgingly congratulated Orton, then trudged off to the locker room, where they watched the San Diego Chargers finish off the Oakland Raiders 38-26.

The Broncos, Raiders and Chargers all finished 8-8, but Denver won the AFC West with a better record against common opponents. The Chiefs finished 7-9 and avoided reaching double digits in losses for a fourth time in five years.

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 the Broncos stumbled to a 1-4 start, banishing him to third string behind Brady Quinn to run the scout team against Denver's No. 1 defense.

Those notes came in handy Sunday.

The Broncos saved $2.6 million by releasing Orton just before Thanksgiving, but he 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 before losing him for the second half with a suspected concussion.

"Dwayne was on fire in the first half, and then to lose him for the rest of the game, that really hurt our offense," Orton said. "I have the utmost respect for Champ Bailey, but Dwayne had him turning around in circles a couple times out there."

The Broncos lost two offensive starters in the first half when right guard Chris Kuper, the stalwart on an otherwise young line, broke his left leg and fullback Spencer Larsen hurt a knee.

"That was a big blow," offensive tackle Ryan Clady said. "But we really rallied. I'm the first to tell you that I nearly broke down because of that. It was scary. He's a good friend of mine and a leader on the offensive line. But we were able to rally and rush the ball and protect pretty well. We've got to move on and hope he recovers fast."

Kuper's injury made Orton's day bittersweet, too.

"Chris Kuper is a very good friend of mine and to see what happened to him really put a damper on things," Orton said. "He's a great teammate, a great leader on that team and I hope he's able to get back as soon as possible."

Neither QB had a great day. The game's only touchdown came on Dexter McCluster's 21-yard scamper in the first quarter, so this game was as much about the Punting Colquitt brothers, Dustin and Britton, as it was about Orton vs. Tebow.

The Broncos' only score came on Matt Prater's 38-yarder in the third quarter, which followed Javier Arenas' muffed punt at his own 20.

Tebow had one last shot at another miracle comeback when the Broncos got the ball at their 16 with just under a minute left.

Because Fox had declined to go for a 57-yard field goal in the closing seconds of the first half — he was afraid a miss would set up the Chiefs for a double-digit halftime lead — the Broncos had to go 84 yards instead of just needing to get into range for another game-winner by 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.

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.

Instead, it was a footnote in the Broncos' return to the postseason parade just one season after a franchise-worst 4-12 debacle.

"Nobody said how you had to get in," Broncos linebacker Mario Haggan said. "It's what you do with the opportunity once you get there."

Notes: The Broncos have lost all nine times they've met the Chiefs and their predecessors, the Dallas Texans, in the regular-season finale. ... Kuper's replacement, Russ Hochstein, left the game in the fourth quarter with an undisclosed injury and Chris Clark replaced him.

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Follow AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton

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