Plenty at stake in Tebow-Orton Bowl

Once teammates, Kyle Orton, left, and Tim Tebow will square off Sunday in Denver. Getty Images

As if the Denver Broncos and Tim Tebow need any more pressure.

A home loss to Kansas City in Week 17, coupled with an Oakland win at home against San Diego on Sunday, will keep the Broncos out of the playoffs. They would be 8-8 and end the season with three straight losses.

Instead of this season being looked upon as one of progress in the first year of the John Fox era after a 4-12 2010 season, it would be looked upon as a blown opportunity.

Adding to the pressure is the fact that Denver has to face former starting quarterback Kyle Orton, who was claimed by the Chiefs in November after being waived by the Broncos. Orton has a unique opportunity. According to ESPN Stats & Information, this will be the first time since the AFL-NFL merger that a quarterback will play against a team he started for earlier in the season.

Nothing would make Orton happier than to knock Tebow and the Broncos out of the playoffs. Tebow replaced Orton after the Broncos got off to a 1-4 start, and now Orton will do his best to make Denver 1-5 in games he has started.

Can you imagine how the Broncos and Tebow will feel if that happens?

After going 7-1 in his first eight starts, Tebow has seen his team lose its last two games. He played well in a loss to New England in Week 15. However, Tebow regressed at Buffalo last Saturday. He threw three interceptions -- ball security had been his biggest attribute -- including one that was returned for a score and a fumble that was brought back for a touchdown.

Denver’s brass hasn’t come out and publicly said Tebow will get a chance to start next year, but there have been indications that is the way the franchise is leaning. However, if the Broncos lose this game and Tebow, who was named the second Pro Bowl alternate this week, takes another step back, the idea could be reconsidered.

There is a feeling in Denver that Tebow will elevate his game Sunday because Orton will be on the other sideline. Tebow is highly competitive and will want to get the better of the man he replaced. Denver also is comforted by the fact that in college Tebow often played his best in the biggest games.

Orton also has plenty at stake. He is a free agent after the season. Interim Kansas City coach Romeo Crennel said after the Chiefs beat previously undefeated Green Bay in Week 15 -- Orton’s first start as a Chief -- that Orton would probably have a chance to be the Chiefs’ starter next year over injured incumbent Matt Cassel if Orton finished the season strong. Orton was just so-so in a 16-13 overtime loss to Oakland last week. He had his moments, but he failed in the red zone, which was a problem during much of his time in Denver.

Still, if Orton knocks off the Broncos, it could go a long way in helping him get a starting job in 2012, whether it's in Kansas City or elsewhere.

The Broncos know the potential for an embarrassing situation here. But they knew it five weeks ago when they cut Orton. Denver knew Kansas City was a possibility to claim Orton because Cassel was out for the season with a hand injury. But the Broncos believed it was worth the risk because they believed Orton wasn’t needed any longer. They didn’t think Tebow needed the security blanket of the veteran. Orton wasn’t helping Denver at the time of his release, and the fact that he was claimed saved Denver $2.5 million in salary.

“We made the decision to go with Tim Tebow,” Fox told reporters this week. “I think that decision has proved worthy. We took that risk whenever you release any player. We don’t have any control over who takes him or where he goes or any of those things, but it’s good for Kyle. I wish him nothing but the best except for this Sunday … I think at the end of the day we feel real comfortable with Tim. We made that decision and here we are.”

After talking to several people in the organization, I get the sense the that Broncos feel comfortable playing against Orton in a game of this magnitude. I also get the sense that Denver is confident defensively going against Orton. The Broncos practiced against Orton for parts of three seasons, after all.

“We can hit him now,” Denver defensive end Robert Ayers said of facing Orton as an opponent. “I’m not going to think too much into this whole Kyle Orton thing. We’re fighting for something that’s big, and we want to go to the playoffs. That’s all I’m focusing on.”

Still, Orton also feels comfortable against the Broncos, and be sure that he has given every tidbit he knows about his former Denver teammates to his new coaching staff as he tries to come out of the game the victorious quarterback.

Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. likes Orton’s chances in this matchup.

“I would rather have Orton for one game,” Williamson said. "I do get that Tebow plays his best in big games, and Orton has rarely showed that ability. But Orton is the better NFL quarterback right now and his experience puts it over the top for me.”

If Williamson is right, there could be major ramifications in both Denver and in Kansas City if Orton sends the Broncos into offseason mode.