DENVER — Even in defeat, Tim Tebow came out a winner.
Tebow fell short in his latest comeback bid, yet his Denver Broncos still made it the playoffs Sunday.
As the AFC West champions, no less. Meaning more Tebowmania, at least for another week.
Former Denver quarterback Kyle Orton got his revenge in leading the Kansas City Chiefs over the Broncos 7-3. But the Broncos wound up in the postseason anyway when San Diego knocked off Oakland minutes later.
"It's obviously a little bittersweet right now," Tebow said. "We would have loved to have won that game to have a little momentum going into the playoffs. But I think it's still a special thing what we accomplished, to come back and win the AFC West is very special."
Now, the Broncos (8-8) will host the wild-card Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) in the first round next Sunday.
"Well, we're AFC West champs," Broncos coach John Fox said. "It doesn't matter how you do it. Once you get into the dance, they can't kick you out."
After begrudgingly congratulating Orton, the Broncos celebrated the end to their six-year playoff drought once the Chargers eliminated the Raiders 38-26.
Denver finished 8-8, same as the Raiders and Chargers. They won their first division title since 2005 on a tiebreaker, going 6-6 against common opponents while the others went 5-7.
So, everybody at Mile High got what they wanted even though Tebow couldn't beat the guy he failed to beat out in training camp.
Orton, who also handed Green Bay its only loss, went 2-1 in Kansas City. His steady play likely raised his stock as he prepares to enter free agency. And he might have secured interim coach Romeo Crennel's future with the Chiefs (7-9).
Best of all, he beat the team that benched him after he finally caved under the weight of Tebowmania and the Broncos stumbled to a 1-4 start.
Orton had laid low all week but he finally 'fessed up after the game that this game had special meaning to him even though it was for pride and payback and not the playoffs.
"I can't hide that," he said. "But I congratulate those guys. They're in. I congratulate them and I look forward to next year."
The Broncos revamped their offense to fit Tebow's unconventional skill set and surged to the top of their division. They released Orton in the midst of a 7-1 run that included a series of fourth-quarter comebacks that captivated the football world.
Never before in the four-plus decades since the AFL-NFL merger has a starting quarterback returned to start a game in the same season against his former team.
Neither QB had a great day. The game's only touchdown came on Dexter McCluster's 21-yard scamper in the first quarter, so this game was as much about the Punting Colquitt brothers, Dustin and Britton, as it was about Orton vs. Tebow.
The Broncos got one last shot when they got the ball at their 16 with just under a minute left.
Tebow time? Not this time.
Because Fox had declined to go for a 57-yard field goal in the closing seconds of the first half — he was afraid a miss would set up the Chiefs for a double-digit halftime lead — the Broncos had to go 84 yards in 47 seconds instead of just needing to get into range for another game-winner by Matt Prater.
Tebow, who had completed four passes all afternoon with the Broncos running 47 times for 216 yards, including 145 by Willis McGahee, suddenly had to chuck it.
And he was intercepted by cornerback Brandon Carr with 8 seconds left.
Tebow finished 6 of 22 for 60 yards and added 16 yards on six carries.
The Broncos saved $2.6 million by releasing Orton just before Thanksgiving but Orton nearly made them pay an even heftier price for that decision, completing 15 of 29 passes for 180 yards against his former team and connecting with Dwayne Bowe six times for 93 yards before losing him for the second half with a suspected concussion.
"Dwayne was on fire in the first half, and then to lose him for the rest of the game, that really hurt our offense," Orton said. "I have the utmost respect for Champ Bailey, but Dwayne had him turning around in circles a couple times out there."
The Broncos lost two offensive starters in the first half when right guard Chris Kuper, the stalwart on an otherwise young line, broke his left leg and fullback Spencer Larsen hurt a knee.
Kuper's injury made Orton's day bittersweet, too.
"Chris Kuper is a very good friend of mine and to see what happened to him really put a damper on things," Orton said. "He's a great teammate, a great leader on that team and I hope he's able to get back as soon as possible."
Had Denver not backed into the playoffs, boss John Elway's dangerous decision to release Orton at midseason would have gone down as one of the biggest blunders in Broncos history.
And Fox would have been second-guessed for passing up on a 57-yard field goal attempt in the first half even though his kicker is the best in the business from long distance and points were at a premium.
The Broncos finally scored on Prater's 38-yarder in the third quarter, which followed Javier Arenas' muffed punt at his own 20.
Coming off the worst game of his career, a four-turnover blunder at Buffalo, Tebow killed Denver's only promising drive of the first half when he coughed up the football as he was trying to reach across the Chiefs 10-yard line for the first down and linebacker Justin Houston scooped up the loose ball.
In a surreal scene, the Chiefs (7-9) hooted and hollered in their locker room while the playoff-bound Broncos were subdued.
"When we look at our team, we can't say this is our strength. Everything is mediocre," Bailey said. "We've got to get better. If we want to make any kind of fuss in the playoffs, we've got to get better."
"Not the way you want to go in," Bailey said as he glanced up at the Chargers-Raiders game on TV. "But, hey, we've got another shot."
comment on this story
"Nobody said how you had to get in," teammate Mario Haggan added. "It's what you do with the opportunity once you get there."
Notes: The Broncos have lost all nine times they've met the Chiefs and their predecessors, the Dallas Texans, in the regular season finale. ... Kuper's replacement, Russ Hochstein, left the game in the fourth quarter with an undisclosed injury and Chris Clark replaced him. ... Chiefs C Casey Wiegmann wouldn't say if this was his last game. "Football has been good to me," he said. "That's all I know."
Follow AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton