The San Diego Chargers (7-3) all but ensured they will win the AFC West with a 32-3 rout Sunday at Denver's Invesco Field, and only the second-quarter emergence of injured Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton off the bench sparked any life in the disillusioned home team.
Hobbling on a badly sprained left ankle, Orton was a better option than struggling backup Chris Simms, who started the game but almost immediately lost the ball on a sack and fumble and ultimately failed to move Denver's offense effectively.
With 4:10 left before halftime, Broncos first-year coach Josh McDaniels gave Simms the hook and called on Orton. The Invesco Field crowd roared its approval. Orton, who finished with 171 yards and an interception on 15 of 29 passing, fired off back-to-back long completions to Brandon Marshall and Jabar Gaffney, setting up a Denver 1st-and-goal at the 4-yard line.
Then ... disaster. And a potential rift to the once-chummy Broncos' team chemistry came out of the ensuing goal line pileup.
With the Broncos trailing 13-0, rookie running back Knowshon Moreno took a handoff from Orton and gained three yards before losing the football in a collision with Chargers defensive end Jacques Cesaire.
The turnover, which came just ahead of the two-minute warning, was reviewed and upheld. With that, Marshall -- the Broncos' volatile playmaker -- put his facemask directly into Moreno's facemask and let the rookie have it verbally.
Moreno physically pushed back, and two of the Broncos' most explosive players nearly came to blows. Afterward, both of them called it a momentary exchange of heated emotion. But neither offered an apology.
"I don't regret anything. This is a playoff game," said Marshall, who approached this contest that would break a first-place tie between the two division rivals as such. "This is probably the most frustrating game I've ever played in. I approached it like it was a playoff game. I'm frustrated that we lost.
"I think everybody needs to look at themselves first. I'm going back and looking at film from last year, see if I've changed anything, and go from there."
The Moreno fumble? "Those are plays that kill drives," Marshall said.
And what did Marshall tell Moreno when the two were facemask-to-faceask?
"That we need to pick it up."
Said Moreno, "Nothing big. But everyone was heated. Nothing long-term. Just heat of the moment."
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"There were guys on the sideline that weren't angry, who didn't have a lot of emotion. And they need to look at themselves in the mirror," Marshall said. "This is a game where you've got to have it. And none of us can make any terrible plays."
The Broncos (6-4) would go on to make a bunch of them – three turnovers (two fumbles and the Orton interception) and countless offside and false start penalties that gave the surging Chargers, winners of five in a row, more momentum in an already lopsided affair.
Orton, who didn't practice all week after injuring his left ankle in Week 10's loss to the Redskins, came in Sunday listed as the No. 2 quarterback. Simms had replaced Orton at Washington but looked absolutely lousy doing it.
Simms, who got his first NFL start since rupturing his spleen in a 2006 game during his Tampa Bay Buccaneers' days, didn't fare much better Sunday, completing 2 of 4 passes for 10 yards and losing that first-quarter fumble at the Chargers 17-yard line on the Broncos' opening drive, following an 11-yard sack. San Diego then drove 69 yards to set up a 2-yard Philip Rivers touchdown pass to wide receiver Legedu Naanee.
Despite not being able to ignite the Broncos' offense, Simms admitted he was surprised to be yanked so soon.
"I was looking forward to [the start] and I felt comfortable out there," Simms said. "I know it was a little rocky start, but it's the NFL -- sometimes it does go rocky for a little bit. But I'll be OK and I'll continue to make myself better."
With Denver facing a short week before a Thanksgiving home game against the New York Giants, McDaniels said he had no regrets going with Simms as the starter -- and pulling him out as early as he did to go back to an injured Orton. Sensing a need to move out of the pocket-passing scheme with Simms and going to a shotgun offense with Orton went into McDaniels' decision making.
"We did a lot of decent things there early," said McDaniels, whose skidding team beat the Chargers 34-23 in San Diego on Oct. 19 and once held a 3 1/2-game lead in the AFC West. "Any time you get down there in the red zone four times and come away with three points ... I think we turned over the ball twice down there.
"Those are plays that if you make them, then you know you end up with points, maybe touchdowns and if you don't, obviously you have no momentum and you give away an opportunity."
So is Orton a Superman, or just a guy doing what the coach told him to do?
Adrenaline was a hell of a painkiller, Orton said.
"It helps. You forget about [the pain]," he said. "Guys did a good job of protecting me. I'm just thankful I didn't have to have anything set me back even more."
Others on the field could only admire Orton for his toughness, and respect his ability to make plays despite being in obvious pain at times.
"Kyle, he's very intelligent. He's really talented," Marshall said. "And he's our quarterback."
"I thought he played really well -- he obviously gave them a boost there for awhile," said Rivers, who completed 17 of 22 passes for a season-low 145 yards and one touchdown. "I told him, 'Hey, get healthy and get your guys going.' "