Cassel tanks in front of mentor

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Matt Cassel struggled against his former mentor, Josh McDaniels, completing just 10 of 29 passes for 84 yards before being benched. He also threw two interceptionsKANSAS CITY --- This couldn’t have been the Matt Cassel whom Josh McDaniels tried to trade for, completely changing the complexion of his new organization in the process.

In their first meeting as opponents, Cassel looked far from the breakout player he was in New England last year under McDaniels’ guidance. Cassel -- whose career will always be linked to McDaniels -- had perhaps his worst day as a professional Sunday, and spent more than a quarter of Denver’s 44-13 thrashing on the bench.

After the game, Chiefs coach Todd Haley said Cassel is still his quarterback. Haley answered with a simple “yes” when asked if Cassel will be behind center against Buffalo next week.

Still, Cassel’s departure had the feel of a benching. At the very least, his performance had something to do with his early departure and the insertion of Brodie Croyle at quarterback.

Cassel, who was awful in the third quarter as Denver outscored Kansas City 20-0, completed 10 of 29 passes for 84 yards. He threw both of his interceptions in the third quarter. Cassel had been improving steadily this season, but he had little to offer Sunday.

Still, it was startling to see Croyle replace Cassel in the third quarter, especially under the circumstances. Croyle -- the team’s former starter, who completed only 6 of 14 passes for 50 yards -- entered after the Chiefs recovered a fumble at the Broncos’ 3 late in the third quarter and Denver leading 34-6. You would think the starting quarterback would be kept in at the goal line.

“I always want to be out there with my team,” Cassel said. “I always want to fight. Part of the situation of us being where we were was my fault … Coach felt like it was time to put Brodie in the game and the game was out of hand at that point. And that was part of his decision-making.”

Haley made it clear that he still believes in Cassel.

“I’m very confident in Matt,” Haley said. “The game didn’t go the way he or we wanted it to go.”

While Cassel’s departure from the game wasn’t a classic benching, and he is still the team’s quarterback of the future, it was a remarkable downward turn for the player McDaniels wanted to be his quarterback in Denver.

Perhaps it served as a reminder to Denver that the dramatic turn of events in the offseason worked out best for them.

In one of his first moves as Denver’s coach, McDaniels looked into trading for Cassel, who shined for New England as Tom Brady’s injury replacement last season. Denver quarterback Jay Cutler, coming off a Pro Bowl year at the age of 25, was going to be part of a potential three-way deal. The trade never happened and Kansas City sneaked in and got Cassel instead.

But the damage was done in Denver. Cutler was eventually sent to Chicago in a deal in which the Bears tossed in quarterback Kyle Orton.

On Sunday, Orton continued his steady, game-managing ways for the Broncos, who improved to 8-4.

McDaniels threw praise at his beleaguered protégé Sunday. But it’s clear McDaniels is enjoying more success than Cassel after the botched trade that would have reunited them.

Other keys to the game:

Denver is back on track: The team of streaks continued its wild ride. Denver started the season with six straight wins before losing four straight and its hold on first place in the AFC West. Now, Denver has won two straight games and looks to be in good shape for the playoffs.

Denver trails San Diego (9-3) by one game in the division entering the final quarter of the season and would currently be the AFC's No. 5 seed.

If the Broncos win their final two home games (against Oakland and Kansas City) they will reach the 10-win mark, which should secure a playoff berth. The Broncos have a tough test at 12-0 Indianapolis next week.

Denver’s running game thrives: After struggling during its losing streak, the Denver running game was at its best Sunday.

Correll Buckhalter had 113 yards on 12 carries and rookie Knowshon Moreno had 86 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries.

Buckhalter set the pace with three runs totaling 56 yards on a touchdown drive during the second quarter that gave Denver a 14-3 lead and command of the game.

“Buck has done a great job all year,” Orton said. “He’s a guy that once he breaks through that line he’s really got a lot of home run potential.”

If Buckhalter and Moreno can sustain their 1-2 punch (as they did early in the season), Denver’s offense could be difficult to stop late in the season.

Thomas would have been proud: On the day that Kansas City’s late legendary pass-rusher Derrick Thomas had his No. 58 jersey retired, Chiefs linebacker Tamba Hali had his best game as a pro. Hali had 10 tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles.

“Tamba played his [rear] off,” Kansas City linebacker Mike Vrabel said. “It’s too bad we couldn’t take advantage of it.”

While Hali was the pass-rushing story of the day, Denver linebacker Elvis Dumervil had a sack to raise his total to 15, which leads the NFL. Dumervil needs one sack to tie Denver’s single-season record and he is 7.5 sacks from tying the NFL record. He is on pace for 20 sacks.

Vrabel loses his cool: Vrabel reacted angrily after Denver scored its final touchdown to make it 41-13 with 12:05 to go. Moreno scored on an 18-yard run on fourth-and-1

He directed an obscene gesture toward Denver’s bench. Vrabel was with McDaniels in New England the past several seasons.

Vrabel attributed the gesture to frustration after another tough loss. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if he is fined by the NFL. Players have been fined for such gestures in the past.