Nothing had changed on the surface. Until Wednesday, an Orton from Purdue still resided in the corner stall near the entrance to the Broncos' locker room.
Difference was, it was practice squad receiver Greg Orton flanking Denver's offensive linemen, not quarterback Kyle Orton.
On Sunday, though, it'll be decidedly more than window dressing when it comes to Ortons.
Kyle Orton will have a say in whether Denver makes the playoffs. He will be leading the AFC West rival Chiefs, who picked him up on waivers last month, in the regular-season finale at Denver. Orton went 12-21 as the Broncos' starting quarterback over the last two years before the team cut him loose before Thanksgiving.
Adding intrigue, the storyline also includes Tim Tebow, the player who replaced Orton as the Broncos' quarterback.
Denver (8-7) would clinch the AFC West title with a win over Kansas City. Even with a loss, the Broncos still could get into the postseason if Oakland (8-7) loses at home to San Diego because of a tiebreaker edge involving common opponents.
Tiebreakers won't matter if Tebow can outduel Orton.
Players and coaches in Kansas City and Denver both are distancing themselves from that ready-made plot. It's merely Chiefs-Broncos, they say.
"The extra juice is playoffs," safety David Bruton said.
True enough. But now imagine Orton's Chiefs and the Raiders both securing wins, leaving Denver out of the postseason. The decision to let Orton come back to haunt the Broncos would be the talk of the offseason.
"Forget all that jibber-jabber," safety Rahim Moore said. "Let's give the fans what they want to see, and let's compete, and may the best man win."
Executive vice president of football operations John Elway has gone on record this week several times defending the Nov. 22 decision to release Orton, saying that while the Broncos knew there was a chance they could see Orton again, it was a chance the franchise was willing to take.
"The right thing then is still the right thing now," Elway said on his weekly radio show on 102.3 FM this week.
Still, the move sets up one of the best potential revenge stories in sports in recent memory. Denver essentially saved $2.6 million by cutting Orton but could have averted potential ramifications by keeping him.
"We made the decision to go with Tim Tebow," coach John Fox said. "I think that decision proved worthy. You take 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 think at the end of the day, we feel real comfortable with Tim. We made that decision, and here we are."
Orton started the first five games for Denver, going 1-4 in that role, before he was replaced by Tebow. The Broncos then revamped the offense to a more option-oriented, running-based attack that fit their new quarterback that further marginalized Orton's status. That led to his release so he could latch on somewhere with free agency pending.
"I mean, I love Kyle, but I couldn't care less," Broncos right guard Zane Beadles said. "It's the Broncos vs. the Chiefs. And by that I mean we've got to beat the Chiefs to get into the playoffs. It doesn't matter who's on their team."
Orton departed in the throes of Tebowmania, when Denver was in the midst of a stretch of seven wins in eight games that moved the Broncos atop the AFC West and into firm playoff contention. But the noose has gotten tighter for the Broncos with losses the last two weeks, setting up the Orton-Tebow drama.
"I wish him nothing but the best," Tebow said, "but maybe not too good Sunday."
Tebow has his own issues to worry about, far from the hype surrounding the quarterback matchup. He had five career interceptions in 12 starts before Saturday's blowout loss in Buffalo, when he was picked off four times. He's been sacked 12 times in his last 105 drop-backs. His completion percentage in the last two weeks is only 46 percent.
The loss to Buffalo last week was Tebow's self-described worst game ever as a quarterback at any level, only adding to the intrigue this week.
For a player who's become a national phenomenon in 2 1/2 months, Tebow has thrived under intense pressure, on balance.
It was his reputation, too, when he played for the University of Florida.
"Every year's a little bit different and new opportunities, new obstacles, new struggles," Tebow said. "This is one more, and it's exciting. I consider myself blessed to be in this position where we win and have an opportunity to go to the tournament. It's exciting to just play a rival. That'll be a lot of fun."
The Broncos will be attempting to win their first division title since 2005 and to avert a fourth December collapse in six years.
For Kansas City, it's simply Orton making his third start for his new team. He's completed 44 of 67 passes for 599 yards with a touchdown. But many of the same issues that led to his demotion in Denver have plagued him with the Chiefs: critical interceptions and a lack of red-zone efficiency.
Both Orton and the Broncos have a strong knowledge base on the other. Orton did go against Denver's first-team defense both in training camp and when he ran the scout team, so he knows the personnel and the scheme.
"Then again, we have an advantage with him having been here, a lot of us have seen him for three years," Bruton said. "We know how he reacts to certain things, and you can get a vibe on Kyle. We understand when he's hot, he's hot, and when he's cold, we've got to keep him cold."
SERIES HISTORY: 103rd regular-season meeting. Chiefs leads series, 55-47. Denver beat Kansas City 17-10 on Nov. 13. The clubs have split the two-game annual set in seven of the last eight years. However, the Chiefs are 1-9 in the last 10 games in Denver, with the lone victory a 44-24 decision to cap the 2009 season and end any hope of a Broncos playoff appearance.
--Cornerback Champ Bailey made the Pro Bowl for the 11th time. It wasn't a ho-hum personal achievement for Bailey, either, given that his latest honor comes at age 33, which is old age in defensive back years.
Bailey signed a four-year contract extension for $43 million dollars -- $15 million guaranteed -- in one of the first moves by the new Broncos front-office brass last February.
And after watching the cornerback match up one-on-one this season with the likes of Calvin Johnson, Steve Johnson, Santonio Holmes, Vincent Jackson and Brandon Marshall, so far it's been money well spent, especially given Bailey's quiet leadership style.
"I just think it's part my body being healthy and my competitive nature," Bailey said in explaining his longevity at the top of his craft. "I thrive for these Sundays, and it keeps me going. I don't see it diminishing at all right now. I start thinking about what could come after my career, I can't even think that far because I feel like I have so much left."
Bailey's 11th Pro Bowl selection is the most ever by a cornerback. He's tied among all defensive backs with Rod Woodson, who ended his career as a safety.
"I have to be real with myself at some point, but right now I feel good. I feel healthy," Bailey added. "I've been blessed to be healthy throughout my career."
--Wide receiver Eric Decker went from being Tim Tebow's favorite target, with four touchdown receptions in the quarterback's first six starts, to a virtual non-factor in December.
In the November meeting in Kansas City, Tebow had just two completions -- one a 56-yard TD strike to Decker.
But in the four games this month, Decker has managed six total catches for 145 yards and zero scores. Twice since the bye, he's been shut out totally.
Coverage has something to do with the decline. Tebow's inability to scan the field and consistently hit his second and third reads is another.
But Decker also blames himself for the downturn.
"I'm frustrated by my own play," he said. "This last month, I would say, has been tough one for myself. There's drops. There's missed opportunities. There's things I haven't done well. I've got to find a way to get out there and be able to make the big plays and come up with the football when it's in the air."
BY THE NUMBERS: Minus-7 -- Denver's turnover margin in consecutive losses to New England and Buffalo. That includes four interceptions and a lost fumble by Tim Tebow -- and zero takeaways by the Broncos' defense. The Broncos' seven giveaways are tied for the highest total in the league the last two weeks with Chicago and the New York Jets.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "This is nothing new. It was career-ending when I had a neck injury five years ago. It was career-threatening when I (had a) Lisfranc foot (injury). So, I don't worry about all that stuff. It's not even something I'm concerned about." -- Strong safety Brian Dawkins, denying published reports that his career may be in jeopardy after a neck issue sidelined him for most of the last two games.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The key area to watch for Denver is the defensive backfield. Too many times in the last two weeks, there have been busted coverages and missed tackles, in part because of shifting personnel to backups due to injuries.
With Kansas City QB Kyle Orton all-too-familiar with Denver's personnel, it will be key for the Broncos to at least be at full strength to defend his anticipated crack at selected matchups.
WR Dwayne Bowe likely will have his hands full with Denver Pro Bowl CB Champ Bailey, so Orton will look to other potential mismatches -- such as WR Jonathan Baldwin or WR Steve Breaston on nickel CB Chris Harris, if the latter plays as expected, or especially RB Dexter McCluster out of the backfield vs. a safety/linebacker.
--WR Quan Cosby was released by the Broncos two weeks after he bungled a kickoff just before halftime that directly led to a New England field goal. Cosby also muffed a kickoff in that game that was returned to the Denver 8-yard line. He was then de-activated the next week vs. Buffalo. The Colts claimed him off waivers Wednesday.
--FB Austin Sylvester was added to Denver's active roster off Tampa Bay's practice squad. Sylvester spent nearly two months on Denver's practice squad before he was released and joined the Bucs' practice squad. The Broncos could immediately use Sylvester to help shore up some recent special teams coverage deficiencies.
--TE Cornelius Ingram was signed to Denver's practice squad, giving the team five tight ends on the roster. Ingram was a fifth-round draft pick of the Eagles in 2009 and spent most of the last three seasons on Philly's practice squad but also had a cup of coffee in Detroit. Ingram played both football and basketball at the University of Florida.
--FB Will Ta'ufo'ou only lasted about a week in Denver, as he was waived Tuesday to make room for TE Cornelius Ingram on the practice squad. The Broncos have gone through a slew of developmental fullbacks in recent months, including Austin Sylvester, Ta'ufo'ou and Quinn Johnson, who was also cut Dec. 17 to make room for S Kyle McCarthy on the active roster.
--OT Chris Clark has started six games this season as Denver has employed a heavy rush package to start. Clark would be considered the top swing backup at the tackle position. With Denver's line depth heading into the offseason planning stages about to be scrutinized, the team is finishing, from left to right across the line, with a second unit of Tony Hills, Russ Hochstein, Manny Ramirez, Adam Grant and Clark.
--SS Brian Dawkins was dressed in sweats and his jersey but sans helmet as the only Broncos player not to participate in the team's final padded practice of 2011. Dawkins missed all but a little over a quarter of action over the last two games with persistent neck issues. His availability has to be considered questionable this weekend.
--CB Chris Harris, the team's nickel back, was back at practice after leaving the Buffalo game with a neck injury sustained on an open-field tackle of Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick.
--FS Quinton Carter (lower back) returned to workouts after departing the Buffalo loss. His presence is necessary with Brian Dawkins' questionable status combined with the play of FS Rahim Moore, whose shaky performances have the coaches' confidence in him wavering.
GAME PLAN: The Broncos ran the ball an astounding 55 times vs. only eight pass attempts (two completions) in their first meeting with the Chiefs.
That ratio likely will balance out some, but the idea probably will remain the same in attacking a Kansas City defense that this month has allowed just 279.5 yards, 173.3 passing yards and 17.5 points per game.
Denver still boasts the No. 1 rush offense in the NFL at 161.1 yards per game and is on pace to finish with the second-highest total in team history. The ground game has to remain the main focus.
For two consecutive weeks, the Broncos have fallen behind and had to lean on QB Tim Tebow throwing under duress. For two straight weeks, they've lost with Willis McGahee hobbled due to knee/hamstring issues.
McGahee had only four carries the first game against Kansas City, when he sustained his first leg ailment. He needs to be the centerpiece of the offense with 20 to 25 carries, allowing play-action to be the chief component in the downfield passing game.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Denver's special teams, which allowed 238 combined return yards last week, vs. Kansas City returners Javier Arenas and Dexter McCluster -- Matt Prater has 45 touchbacks on 65 attempts, a 69.2 percentage, which is tied for second in the NFL. But at home, Prater is nearly automatic: 27 of 30, 90 percent. That's one way to stop the special teams issues that have plagued the Broncos the last two weeks. McCluster is shifty and dangerous in the open field, but if he doesn't have an opportunity to return kickoffs, Denver can keep field position manageable after Buffalo's average drive start was its own 36. However, the real killer was a Leodis McKelvin 80-yard punt return TD. Part of the issue has been Denver forced to use special teams stalwarts such as David Bruton, Quinton Carter and Chris Harris for significant defensive snaps, too, which doesn't provide many breathers. Arenas leads the AFC with 13.4 yards per punt return. Better discipline and tackling is paramount for the coverage unit.
The Broncos' red-zone defense, which limited Buffalo last week to 1-of-6 inefficiency, vs. a Kansas City offense that is 2-for-9 inside the 20-yard line in QB Kyle Orton's two starts -- For all of the gaudy numbers that Orton put up with the Broncos, one of the primary demerits was Denver settling for too many field goals with him at the helm. In fact, during a Broncos summer scrimmage in their home stadium, the crowd lustily booed as the first-team offense when Orton couldn't push the ball into the end zone. The Chiefs have scored TDs on only 12 of 36 red-zone possessions this season -- a 33.3 percent rate that's last in the NFL. Orton was picked off once in the end zone and another time just outside the red zone. This has to be a money area for the Broncos defensively.