In a game that decided home field advantage in the AFC playoffs, the Denver Broncos came out flat. The Broncos offense, led by Brock Osweiler turned the ball over five times and scored just seven points. So, midway through the third frame, head coach Gary Kubiak went to his bench, called up the best comeback quarterback in NFL history, and asked him to do it again. He did, leading the Broncos to a 27-20 victory over the Chargers.
Early on, there were no signs of the quarterback chaos to come. On the second play from scrimmage, the 25-year-old gunslinger Osweiler hit Demaryius Thomas on a 72-yard touchdown to open the game with a 7-0 lead. From there, it was all downhill for Brock and company.
Four first half turnovers, including two Osweiler interceptions, was enough for Kubiak to tell five-time MVP Peyton Manning to be ready to play. A C.J. Anderson fumble in the third quarter was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The Broncos needed a leader, a spark to set fire to a flat offensive unit.
After nearly two months off, Manning returned to the field for the first time since his disastrous four interception performance against the Kansas City Chiefs. The time off seems to have done wonders for him. “I felt like I hadn’t played in several weeks,” Manning joked. “The NFL is not something you can just turn on. It’s a grind every week. I’m just glad we got the win.”
It’s not as if Manning lit up the stat sheet. He went 5-of-9 for 69 yards. However, his presence under center seemed to spark the offense into action. “I feel like the offensive line blocked a little better when I was in there, guys caught things a little better,” Manning said.
As soon as he entered the game, Manning’s ability to lead an offense showed immediately. The Broncos offense went down the field in a flash, capping off a long drive with a C.J. Anderson rushing touchdown.
A Broncos offense that had looked flat and jumbled with Osweiler at the helm seemed calm and collected with the 18-year veteran under center. It was the first time Manning had been called off the bench in his NFL career.
For him, it was certainly a different experience. “It was a very different week, a week like I’ve never been through” Manning said. “I guess all the quarterback’s who’ve played behind me, I feel for them. Probably fitting to get a taste of that 18 years in.”
Not only was Manning inserted into the lineup mid-way through the third, right tackle Michael Schofield, who has been universally ridiculed for poor play this season, also found his way to the bench in favor of veteran Tyler Polumbus. That move allowed the Broncos to open up the run game to the right side of the field and Manning’s leadership and ability to recognize defenses carried the Broncos to a victory.
Head coach Gary Kubiak made his decision in one of the oldest, time-honored ways imaginable. “My gut told me to turn it over to him,” Kubiak said. “Sometimes, you’re just looking for that guy, that leadership guy. I’m really proud of him, he’s worked hard.”
The question now becomes which quarterback the Broncos will turn to for their playoff run. Kubiak was non-committal. “We’re going to enjoy this win tonight.”
Thanks to the spark provided by the five-time NFL MVP, and a sizeable assist earlier in the day from the Miami Dolphins, Kubiak and the Broncos have two weeks to figure it out. The road to Super Bowl 50 will go through the Mile High City.
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