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|AP Photo/David Zalubowski|
|Tight end Tony Gonzalez believes Tyler Thigpen, above, should be Kansas City's quarterback next season and beyond.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
DENVER -- Tony Gonzalez is not sure if he will want to return to the Kansas City Chiefs in 2009. But Sunday, he made one thing abundantly clear.
If he does return to Kansas City for a 13th season, it had better be a package deal with Tyler Thigpen. The star tight end emphatically put his support behind the Chiefs' gutsy, young quarterback Sunday after another close call in Denver, where the Broncos moved to the doorstep of the AFC West championship with a 24-17 win over the feisty Chiefs.
In a candid interview, Gonzalez left no doubt about what he thinks the Chiefs' brass needs to do at quarterback in the offseason: Make Thigpen the long-term answer.
"It would be a disgrace if they don't," Gonzalez said. "We've been playing well since he came in."
The quarterback situation has and will be the biggest topic of discussion as the 2-11 Chiefs stumble toward 2009. The Chiefs have many needs -- Gonzalez said he believes the team is foru to five players away from being a legitimate playoff contender -- starting with the front seven on defense. There has been much speculation the Chiefs, who will very likely have a top-five pick in the draft, will pursue a quarterback through the draft, a trade or free agency.
Gonzalez has advice for the team, if they're listening or not.
"You already got your quarterback," Gonzalez said. "You get something else to help us."
With Gonzalez, who owns every significant receiving record in the NFL by a tight end, firmly behind Thigpen, does that mean he wants to return to Kansas City? Back in October Gonzalez asked the team to trade him and he was upset when a trade didn't happen by the deadline. Back then, the 32-year-old Gonzalez said he would evaluate whether he wants to return after the season.
He maintained that stance Sunday.
"I don't know what I will want to do in two months," he said. However, Gonzalez did say he can see himself finishing his career in Kansas City with Thigpen as the quarterback. Thigpen had already left the locker room when Gonzalez made his comments.
"We're close on offense, we're close," Gonzalez said. "I think they are going to get some pieces on defense so the defense can catch up with us, but we're close. Right now, I'm a Kansas City Chief and I know we're close."
Gonzalez did say he feels better about being a Chief than he did in October, "but we're still losing." Gonzalez talked Sunday as he did prior to the trade talk. He said his window is closing and he doesn't have a lot of time remaining in his career. He wants to win now.
He is very happy Kansas City has been competitive in the past several weeks. He said the team is only one or two plays away from winning games. But he expressed the losing "hurts" him.
Still, Gonzalez kept going back to Thigpen. He said the Chiefs became competitive when Thigpen took over Oct. 26 against the New York Jets. Kansas City blew three straight games during a stretch in October and in November, and the Chiefs still are not winning. Yet, Gonzalez did say he can see the Chiefs quickly turning around their fortunes next season.
"I could see this being a playoff team next year," Gonzalez said. "I could see us turning it around."
Whether he will be a part of it is yet to be seen, but it is clear Gonzalez wants Thigpen to be part of it. Thigpen, 24, has thrown for 1,926 yards and 14 touchdowns. Gonzalez said he sees weekly improvement from Thigpen.
The two have become close on and off the field. The future hall of famer has mentored Thigpen and the two, along with other offensive teammates, watch film together on Fridays. It clearly has paid off. Gonzalez had five catches for 73 yards Sunday, including a 13-yard touchdown catch. Gonzalez has 57 of his 78 catches this season in the eight games since the trade deadline. It is clear that he has stayed focused during the tough time and it is clear Thigpen has re-energized him.
"Maybe I like him because he throws to me," Gonzalez joked. "He's a good kid, he's humble. He listens. He's not like a lot of young players today who thinks they are the best. He wants to get to better and he will."
Here are some other elements from Denver's win, where the Broncos cut their magic number in the AFC West to one game. A Denver win or a loss or tie by San Diego in the final three weeks gives the Broncos the title.
Denver's running game takes a hit: Denver rookie running back Peyton Hillis suffered a hamstring injury late in the second quarter and did not return. Hillis has flourished since becoming Denver's lead tailback a month ago. Hillis, a rookie fullback, got the job after three Denver running backs were lost for the season with injuries.
The only healthy Broncos tailback after Hillis was hurt Sunday was Tatum Bell, who signed three weeks ago. Bell did have a key 28-yard run in the second half as the Broncos finished off a win in which they had to score 17 unanswered points.
The Broncos will need Hillis down the stretch to keep balance to the offense. He had 58 yards, including an 18-yard touchdown run, on eight carries before his injury. Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said the injury Hillis suffered often costs a player a month. However the team's trainer said through the PR staff that is premature. Hillis said after the game that he doesn't think the injury is overly serious.
Marshall has a big game: Broncos receiver Brandon Marshall hadn't caught more than six passes in a game for the past six games. However, he broke out big time Sunday, catching 11 passes for 91 yards. He had two touchdowns and he made a huge catch on third down on the final drive as Denver ran out the clock.
Marshall has 83 catches for 1,033 yards. With Denver probably heading for the postseason, Marshall will be a key, especially if Hillis is out for a while. Marshall has been dealing with leg ailments, and quarterback Jay Cutler said his performance Sunday was significant.
"That was big for him," said Cutler, who completed 32 of 40 pass attempts for 286 yards.
Denver shows some consistency: The Broncos have now won four of their past five games and ended a three-game losing streak at home.
While it wasn't an easy win, it was important because the Broncos showed some consistency. Denver has had t
rouble beating lesser opponents this season while it has played up to its competition. A perfect example was the previous two weeks, when Oakland won 31-10 in Denver and then the Broncos cooled off the Jets, 34-17, on the road last week.
"I think we're clicking at the right time," Denver cornerback Dre' Bly said. "We're fighting our inconsistencies."