A big reason: the play Sunday of Tim Tebow, who didn't know he knocked down that potential domino before it had a chance to boil into a full-blown controversy - but did with a 308-yard passing day.
The Broncos' 24-23 victory over the Houston Texans officially took Denver out of the running for the No. 1 overall draft pick in April.
Carolina now will have the opportunity to rebuild with Luck behind center - if he ends up declaring to go pro.
Make no mistake, either. Two straight Denver losses to end the year would have made drafting Luck an open question, even though the Broncos expended a 2009 first-rounder on Tebow.
The man who brought him to town, Josh McDaniels, is gone. And one of the key components in what will be a revamped front office moving forward, John Elway, stirred the pot some earlier in the week with his comments to a Denver radio station.
"I'll tell you this: I think Andrew Luck is the best football player in the draft, without a doubt," said Elway, a Stanford alum whose expanded duties should be announced mere days after next Sunday's season finale. "If that were to happen (picking No. 1), then you're going to have to have some very serious conversations of exactly which direction you want to go, whether it's with Tim or take a guy like Andrew Luck.
"To me, barring injury, he's going to be very successful in the NFL. I think that's something you really have to think about."
Denver (4-11) currently resides in a three-way tie with Cincinnati and Buffalo behind the Panthers (2-13) for the No. 2 draft pick and with a loss at home in the season finale against San Diego are assured the franchise's highest selection since taking linebacker Mike Croel at No. 4 in 1991.
Strength of schedule still is a malleable entity. But right now, the Broncos clinch the No. 2 pick in the draft regardless with a loss Sunday at home vs. San Diego. That's because opponent wins by Cincinnati (138) and Buffalo (139) can't be reached by Denver (122).
If all three of those teams win, Denver also drafts in the second slot.
The intriguing question now becomes what to do about Kyle Orton, the incumbent starter. That scenario isn't as clear.
TRENDING: Tebow's 308 passing yards Sunday were the third-most ever by a Denver rookie quarterback, surpassed by only Elway (345, Dec. 1983) and Marlin Briscoe (335, 1968). Orton was sacked a season-high five times and threw for just 217 yards in a 35-14 loss at San Diego on Nov. 22. The Chargers, eliminated from playoff contention, close the schedule.
LINEUP WATCH: Denver defensive coordinator Don Martindale hinted at some changes at linebacker, and the resulting move was the insertion of Wesley Woodyard at middle linebacker at the expense of Jason Hunter's starting job at right outside linebacker and a decrease in reps for Robert Ayers. Denver has many defensive needs but this move is only further proof at the upgrades needed at linebacker overall, regardless of scheme.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--CB Champ Bailey aggravated a previous injury to his right heel and his availability for the season finale is in doubt. Bailey said he'll have a better idea around Thursday but on Sunday the injury was painful and too limiting for him to return vs. the Texans. Perrish Cox took his place.
--RB Knowshon Moreno exited Sunday's game in the first half with a recurrence of a rib injury suffered the previous game in Oakland. Moreno fell awkwardly on his side, and with Lance Ball and especially Correll Buckhalter doing a solid job in relief, the coaching staff didn't want to risk further problems by reinserting Moreno into the lineup.
--S Brian Dawkins was "sore" after playing his first game after a three-week absence due to a knee injury but pushed through. Dawkins led Denver with nine tackles (eight solo).
--LB Lee Robinson left the game with an apparent hamstring injury. Robinson was activated off the practice squad three weeks ago to buttress special teams but the leg appeared serious enough that it could end his season.
--CB Syd'Quan Thompson clinched the outcome with an interception off a Justin Bannan tip as Houston drove for a potential game-winning field-goal attempt. It's Thompson's second pick this season, tying him with Champ Bailey for the team lead. Thompson likely will be among the survivors in an offseason defensive purge.
Broncos Update Community Forums