ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – During his sublime 16-year stint as one of the toughest quarterbacks in history, John Elway took more than his share of hellacious hits.
So yes, he is acutely aware of the public pummeling that awaits him if Kyle Orton – the former starter the Broncos' executive vice president nobly set free a few weeks ago – returns to Denver 11 days from now as the Chiefs' quarterback and squashes his old team's playoff dreams.
Should that scenario play out, Elway knows he will be slammed for having made a gratuitous transaction that ultimately came back to bite his team. However, the Hall of Fame quarterback prefers to ponder an alternate, more appealing outcome: Orton helping the Broncos clinch a division title this Saturday.
"If we beat Buffalo and Kyle helps [the Chiefs] beat the Raiders, it won't matter," Elway said Monday afternoon at the Broncos' training facility, smiling as he considered the possible storylines. "If that happens, we'd be able to thank him when he comes in here."
As Elway knows, predicting how the wild, wild AFC West will play out over the final two weeks of the regular season is a futile endeavor. No division in football is less stable. With the first-place Broncos (8-6) and Raiders (7-7) having come back to the pack last Sunday while the Chargers (7-7) and Chiefs (6-8) were rising up and stunning the top two teams in my rankings, all four teams are alive and kicking.
[ Playoff picture: Current AFC/NFC playoff seeds ]
The Broncos, as Elway noted, can clinch the division title Saturday with a victory over the fading Bills in Buffalo and a Chiefs victory over the Raiders in K.C. Even if neither happens, Denver could still win the division by beating the Chiefs at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on New Year's Day, the final Sunday of the season.
The Chargers, with road games remaining against the Lions and Raiders, have a perilous path to the playoffs on paper. However, San Diego – coming off a 34-14 thrashing of the Ravens Sunday night – is in the midst of another late-season rise from the ashes under Norv Turner and looks extremely dangerous.
Conversely, the Raiders, who seemed to have control of the division before losing to the Broncos in early November (as Tim Tebow's uncanny late-game excellence was hijacking the sports world's hearts and minds), are trending downward, with three consecutive defeats. Like the Chargers and Broncos, Oakland remains in the wild-card mix should a division title elude it, with the Jets (8-6), Bengals (8-6) and Titans (7-7) also fighting for one spot and the AFC North's second-place finisher (Steelers or Ravens) having wrapped up the other.
Then, incredibly, there are the Chiefs – the reigning AFC West champs, by the way. When Kansas City general manager Scott Pioli fired coach Todd Haley after a Dec. 11 loss to the Jets, it came off like a concession speech. Shortly thereafter, interim coach Romeo Crennel announced that Orton would make his first start for the team … against the undefeated Packers at Arrowhead Stadium. And then, in three hours that made no sense, Orton outplayed Aaron Rodgers in a 19-14 victory to make these next two weeks a lot more interesting.
When Elway granted Orton's request and released him on Nov. 22, it was a clear gesture of QB-to-QB respect and empathy. Elway appreciated the way Orton handled his demotion and, given that Tebow had become the franchise's quarterback of the present (and, most likely, the future), decided the veteran was expendable.
Many executives in his position would have held onto Orton anyway, reasoning that two teams still on the Broncos' schedule, the Bears and Chiefs, had just lost their starting quarterbacks to injury. Elway elected not to live in fear.
"When we just laid it all out and we looked at all the different factors that were involved, it was the best thing for us to let him go," Elway said Monday. "We knew obviously with the situation where some teams had quarterbacks go down – Kansas City being one of them and Chicago being one of them – that if he was gonna get claimed there was a chance we could play against him. It was like, 'Well, we'll take that chance …'
[ Related: Chiefs' win may have provoked mother's assault ]
"It is what it is. We knew that there was a possibility that it may happen. But hopefully we can go win at Buffalo. And if we win at Buffalo and the Raiders lose, then we're in, and it's a non-factor."
As we wait to see how it all plays out, factoring the relative strength of the AFC West contenders is among the challenging tasks we face here at 32QHQ. In perusing our weekly list of quandaries, you'll notice that last Sunday's run of upsets did very little to disrupt the previous pecking order.
The explanation: I still think the Packers and Ravens are the best teams in their respective conferences; the Patriots' defense still sends my pulse rate racing with terror; I love the city of New Orleans and many of the people who proudly wear the fleur-de-lis on their helmets, but I think the 49ers are a more complete operation.
Blessedly, my opinions will have no impact on the crowning of an actual champion – though they will generate plenty of holiday cheer, from your laptop to mine:
[ Related: Ryan Clark's conspiracy theory on blackout ]
11. Dallas Cowboys: What are the chances that, in advance of Saturday's game against the Eagles, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan tells nose tackle Jay Ratliff that Philly signed ESPN Dallas reporter Calvin Watkins to start at center?
12. New York Giants: After admitting that he "put my foot in my mouth" before last week's defeat to the Redskins, will Giants safety Antrel Rolle get some love from Jets coach Rex Ryan at MetLife Stadium Saturday?
[ Related: Antrel Rolle pops off again ]
15. Cincinnati Bengals: Can a team make the playoffs without a single quality win – and, if the Bengals do just that, couldn't you see them pulling off a first-round upset?
[ Related: Cards, Chiefs paying price for QB decisions ]
22. Kansas City Chiefs: Having used "Gladiator" as a motivational tool before Sunday's upset of the Packers, was Crennel tempted to throw his headset at general manager Scott Pioli and scream, "Are you not entertained?"
[ Related: Giants vs. Jets finally feels like a rivalry ]
27. Buffalo Bills: Yo, Tyler Thigpen – how do you really feel about the coaching change at your alma mater, and how does it feel to be one of the few Bills players who still seems to be fighting for something?
30. Minnesota Vikings: When Visanthe Shiancoe insisted that "some guys hung it up" in last Sunday's blowout defeat to the Saints, was the tight end tempted to add, "And as you know, I'm an expert on 'hung' "?
31. St. Louis Rams: When newly signed quarterback Kellen Clemens referred to "a couple communication quips" after Sunday's defeat to the Bengals, was that his way of saying that the Rams' offense is a joke?
32. Indianapolis Colts: In addition to blocking for Donald Brown on the halfback's game-clinching touchdown run against the Titans, did Dan Orlovsky justify his prolonged, rent-free stay at Brown's house by taking out the recycling, cleaning the toilets and fixing the Xbox 360 console?
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- John Elway