Rankings: Orton move could bite Elway, Broncos

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.

John Elway
(US Presswire)

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 …’

Kyle Orton spent two-plus seasons with the Broncos.
(Getty Images)

[ 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:


JUST ASKING

1. Green Bay Packers: Could Mark Tauscher have fortified the Pack’s suddenly problematic offensive line – and, for that matter, is Adam Timmerman still in shape?

Joe Flacco was sacked five times and intercepted twice by the Chargers.
(Getty Images)

2. Baltimore Ravens: Was Joe Flacco’s mustache covering up his eyes Sunday night, or were his receivers simply having trouble getting open?

3. San Francisco 49ers: In light of Monday night’s events, what’s a better nickname for the 49ers’ pass rush – The Smiths, or The Blackout?

4. Pittsburgh Steelers: What’s scarier to Steelers fans – the sight of Hines Wardracing across an exploding field, or the thought of Ben Roethlisberger’s ankle not healing for the playoffs?

[ Related: Ryan Clark’s conspiracy theory on blackout ]

5. New England Patriots: How big of a bummer for the Pats is Andre Carter’s season-ending injury – and can replacement Mark Anderson keep playing as well as he did Sunday?

6. New Orleans Saints: Does Brees-ey have a shot at being MVPeezy – and is there any doubt that he’d gladly settle for another Super Bowl MVP trophy instead?

7. Houston Texans: After getting burned on a trick play inspired by the movie “Little Giants,” should the Texans’ defenders beware of this “Longest Yard” stunt against the Colts this Thursday?

8. Atlanta Falcons: Given their fear of Drew Brees, and the Saints QB’s lights-out performances as of late, will the Falcons go for it on every fourth down in the Superdome Monday night?

Matthew Stafford has thrown 33 TDs this season.
(Getty Images)
9. Detroit Lions: What’s crazier – that the Lions haven’t had a quarterback voted to the Pro Bowl since 1971, that Greg Landry made a Pro Bowl, or that Scott Mitchell holds the team’s single-season record for passing yards?

10. Denver Broncos: After reading this column, doesn’t it seem kind of obvious that Tim Tebow is an admirable human being?

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 ]

13. Oakland Raiders: Should Hue Jackson have gone for two?

14. New York Jets: Yo, Rex – what if there is no big or little brother and, in reality, the Jets and Giants are both redheaded stepchildren?

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?

16. San Diego Chargers: Why do they persist in taunting me?

Brent Celek had 156 yards and a TD vs. the Jets.
(Getty Images)

17. Philadelphia Eagles: How tremendous did Brent Celek look against the Jets last Sunday – and is it DeSean Jackson’s turn to go off against the Cowboys?

18. Seattle Seahawks: What was more entertaining – Red Bryant’s interception for a touchdown against the Bears, or the fact that he called it a “fat kid’s dream”?

19. Arizona Cardinals: Now that Ken Whisenhunt is the winningest head coach in franchise history, can we tune out all that noise from a couple of months ago about his job being in jeopardy?

[ Related: Cards, Chiefs paying price for QB decisions ]

20. Tennessee Titans: Was Mike Munchak channelingVan Hagar” when he announced that Matt Hasselbeck will start against the Jaguars?

21. Chicago Bears: After his gruesome back injury against the Seahawks, did Johnny Knox get a sympathy call from Johnny Knoxville?

Romeo Crennel is congratulated after the Chiefs’ huge upset.
(AP)

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?

23. Carolina Panthers: Given his new role as an anthem-attention policeman, would Jeremy Shockey be more comfortable playing for the Patriots?

24. Washington Redskins: How depressing is it that until last Sunday’s upset of the Giants, the ‘Skins had failed to play a game this season in which they forced more turnovers than they committed?

[ Related: Giants vs. Jets finally feels like a rivalry ]

25. Miami Dolphins: Is Reggie the new Regis – or is he the new Ricky?

26. Cleveland Browns: Have people outside of Ohio noticed that middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson is having a monster year – and will he get the Pro Bowl selection he deserves?

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?

28. Jacksonville Jaguars: Will the Jags use first-round draft picks on quarterbacks in consecutive years – and, given Blaine Gabbert’s shaky rookie season, would it be crazy not to?

Blaine Gabbert has been sacked 36 times this season.
(Getty Images)

29. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: What’s more embarrassing right now – buying fake tickets to a Bucs game, or purchasing real ones?

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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Michael Silver covers the NFL for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Mogotxt, Twitter and Facebook. Also check out ridewithsilver.com. Send Michael a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Dec 21, 2011