Orton's Return Opens NFL's Stretch Run
Denver lost, 32-3, although the offense did get better with Orton leading it.
But that's not the point. The point is that McDaniels, whose team had lost three in a row coming in, felt Sunday's game was so critical that he needed to insert Orton and risk further injury to the ligaments in the QB's ankle, even with another game coming up in four days. It's like George Allen's old slogan for the Redskins of the 70s: "The future is now.'' Except that Allen's slogan worked a lot better than Orton worked for the Broncos -- he certainly was better than Simms, but it didn't matter much.
Regardless, the start of the stretch run came on a strange day, one in which the best game was the one that mattered least: Detroit's 38-37 last-play win over Cleveland after an end-zone pass interference call on a Hail Mary that kept the game alive. It's a call that's almost never made -- the officiating department has quietly made known to the zebras that they are to call interference on a desperation pass only when it's flagrant.
In this case, the replays showed it was pretty flagrant and two officials threw flags. And it capped a game that a lot of people expected to end 3-2 (hey, there was one safety), instead of the way it did. In fact, Cleveland's four offensive touchdowns were only one less than it had scored in its last 15 games combined. Yes, back to last season.
In any case, this is the way things look going into the final six games:
In the NFC, it probably will be a surprise if anyone but New Orleans and Minnesota play in the conference title game. Although upsets happen in the playoffs and teams that seem to be locks (the '07 Cowboys, for example) often aren't.
But both teams just seem better than everyone else. Yes, Arizona is reminding people that it's the defending conference champion. And if the Cowboys, Giants and Eagles get people healthy and/or figure out why they're stumbling around, they have enough talent to cause problems in the playoffs And, of course, there's always the injury factor -- scratch Drew Brees and/or especially 40-year-old Brett Favre, and the Saints and Vikings come back to the pretty mediocre pack.
But that's always true for any team. So put Arizona and one of the East teams in and assume the other East teams will battle with Green Bay and Carolina for a wild card. But this probably isn't an upset season.
The AFC is a little trickier, although with Pittsburgh losing games on special teams and with Ben Roethlisberger going down with a head injury, this looks like another down post-Super Bowl season for the Steelers. That leaves the three usual suspects for most of this decade: Indianapolis, New England and San Diego.
Throw in Cincinnati, which will win the North despite its stumble in Oakland on Sunday -- all four teams in the AFC North lost on Saturday, two of them to awful AFC West teams. That Bengals' loss was almost predictable given the potential letdown after a win in Pittsburgh and they still are 5-0 in the division. But they don't have the playoff experience to make the kind of run at the Colts, Patriots and Chargers.
Which gets us back to the Broncos, their 6-0 start now turned into 6-4. Given their division, they can regroup late and make the playoffs as a wild-card entry, but probably not much more.
And first ....
Let's see how Orton's ankle is on three days' rest.