But on a day that had as much to do with Denver's colorful history as its promising present, anything seemed possible.
Orton led a drive that might ring a bell for Broncos fans -- 98 yards in the fourth quarter to tie the game -- then Matt Prater kicked a 41-yard field goal in overtime Sunday to lift Denver to a 20-17 victory over New England.
McDaniels got a win over his old boss, Belichick, and the Broncos improved to 5-0 for the first time since 1998, their last Super Bowl season.
"I lied," McDaniels said, when asked about his game-week assertion that this was just another game. "It was a little bit more special to me because I knew how hard it was to beat him."
His postgame reaction said it all. After a quick wave to Belichick near midfield, McDaniels ran to the corner of the stadium near where his family sits and pumped his fist repeatedly before sharing bear hugs with his players.
"This doesn't mean a whole lot unless you can share it with somebody," McDaniels said. "Sometimes, you're allowed to have fun. That's what I was doing."
As part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the AFL, the Broncos came out in their 1960s yellow jerseys and vertically striped socks, then played better than they looked.
Orton threw for 330 yards and two scores. The defense held New England (3-2) scoreless in the second half.
Denver's game-tying, fourth-quarter drive certainly wasn't "The Drive" -- Elway's classic, 98-yard march that helped beat the Browns 23-20 back in the 1987 AFC title game -- but it will go down as one of the best in this franchise's history.
Easily the most surprising since the Broncos took the field half a century ago. Even the 1977 Super Bowl team -- the team that coined the term "Orange Crush" -- was viewed as an up-and-comer back then, something the turmoil-wracked Broncos certainly were not heading into 2009.
"The guys in this locker room believe, the coaches believe, guys believe in each other and are fighting," defensive lineman Vonnie Holliday said.
Trailing 17-10 with 9:59 left, Orton was at his patient best during the game-tying drive that started at the 2. A 14-yard completion to Jabar Gaffney, a screen to Knowshon Moreno that sprung for 27. A 7-yard completion to Eddie Royal, who finished with 10 catches for 90 yards.
Brandon Marshall, who scored the game-winner last week against Dallas, did the honors this time, too, catching a pass on the sideline, then spinning and breaking a tackle for an 11-yard score that tied it at 17. It was his second touchdown of the game.
The teams traded a pair of possessions around midfield to close regulation, then the Broncos won the toss and drove 58 yards to set up the winning field goal with 10:09 left in OT.
"The electricity in the stadium was so great that we had to have it," Orton said. "When we got to overtime, we just had to win."
The game was billed as a matchup between coaching mentor and pupil -- one of many Belichick has faced since he started winning Super Bowls and pushing young head coaches into the NFL world.
It started with some tactical games from McDaniels, who put the Broncos in the wildcat formation on their first drive and watched them rip off gains of 12, 13 and 14. Belichick called a timeout to adjust, the Broncos stalled and Prater missed a 48-yard field goal.
From there, it was exactly what both coaches promised it would be -- a well-played, hard-fought game decided more by the players than the Xs and Os.
The Broncos forced Tom Brady to be patient and pick underneath, the way he has for much of this season. He went 19 for 33 for 215 yards, but only 63 of those came in the second half.
The Denver defense has allowed a grand total of 43 points in five games -- one of the best starts in the league's history. And add this to the resume: Denver handed Brady his first overtime loss. He fell to 7-1.
McDaniels used to be his position coach.
"Josh is a great coach, so he's obviously learned a lot and he's got the team playing well," Brady said. "Pretty impressive for a first-year coach. He's a hard worker and he certainly deserves it. They're playing well."
Orton, meanwhile, improved to 18-2 at home as an NFL starter, and the widely derided decision to anoint him the quarterback and trade away Jay Cutler still looks like a good one.
Denver's decision to choose Moreno with its first draft pick when the defense needed an overhaul also looks good. The rookie made his first start -- in place of injured Correll Buckhalter -- and finished with 88 yards rushing, along with the key, 27-yard catch during the tying drive.
The Broncos lost a fumble and Orton threw his first interception of the season -- to wide receiver Randy Moss, of all people, on a desperation heave to close the first half -- to lose the turnover battle 2-1.
No big deal, unless you consider this: It was the first time in 54 games -- a streak dating to 2003 -- that the Patriots had forced more turnovers and lost. Another in a long list of surprises the Broncos are pulling off in a season hardly anyone saw coming.
Orton's interception was his first in 173 attempts, dating back to when he played for the Bears. ... Patriots OT Matt Light went out in the fourth quarter with an injured right knee and the team offered no update after the game. ... Pats K Stephen Gostkowski made a career-long 53-yard field goal, then missed a 40-yarder to snap a string of 12 straight successful FGs.