Peyton Manning enters the game in the second half to help lead the Broncos over San Diego.
B Manning replaces Osweiler, leads team to AFC’s No. 1 seed B 5 turnovers can’t keep Denver from wild comeback victory
Peyton Manning signed autographs as he walked into the stadium Sunday morning. He warmed up before the game against the San Diego Chargers with increased vigor, glaring at a NFL Films cameraman who invaded his personal space. Then Manning stood on the sideline for two hours, trying to look busy and offer support as the Broncos’ offense fell apart.
After a fifth turnover placed the AFC top seed in jeopardy — a regift by the New England Patriots — Broncos coach Gary Kubiak turned to Manning to replace Brock Osweiler midway through the third quarter. In his first NFL relief appearance, the Broncos needed Manning to shrink the moment.
Manning did so, producing another indelible memory and a victory, leading the Broncos to a 27-20 triumph at Sports Authority Field.
“I don’t think Brock did anything wrong. We could have helped him. Just my gut told me to turn it over to Peyton and let him lead the football team,” said Kubiak, who tied Red Miller’s 1977 franchise record of 12 wins in his first season. “It could not have been a bigger day for him to be there for us.”
The victory clinched the conference’s No. 1 seed, a fifth consecutive AFC West title, and made sense of a day that tiptoed toward chaos. Running back Ronnie Hillman raced 23 yards around the right corner and into the fans’ arms in the north end zone for the winning score. His run allowed the Broncos to stay in place, owners of home-field advantage throughout the playoffs after the Dolphins upset the Patriots 20-10 in Miami. It leaves the Broncos to host the lowest remaining seed after the wildcard round next weekend.
Manning’s finish provided compelling evidence he should start, but Kubiak remained noncommittal, saying he would talk with both quarterbacks when the team reconvenes for practice Thursday.
“I don’t know. Look, we’ve got two weeks before we play again,” Manning said on whether the job should belong to him. “I am glad we won the division, glad we won the game. That would have been pretty sickening to lose.”
For the first time since Nov. 15, Manning was healthy enough to play. And, after C.J. Anderson’s third-quarter fumble, Kubiak needed him.
Manning entered to a standing ovation at 4:27 p.m. The Broncos trailed 13-7 after tight end Antonio Gates’ 13-yard touchdown reception.
“The cheers, the energy surge, it changed the whole atmosphere,” defensive end Antonio Smith said. “It wasn’t Brock’s fault we were losing. But man,
when those fans went wild, I knew nothing was going to stop us.”
It created a remarkable scene. The past eight days featured a humbling, if not infuriating, series of events for Manning. It began with Manning’s denial of a report implying he used HGH and continued with his serving as a healthy scout team quarterback in practice.
Manning began Sunday as a backup for the first time since his freshman year at the University of Tennessee when he played behind Todd Helton.
“Oh, (heck) yes, I am happy for him. I am even more happy that he won,” said Helton, who remains close friends with Manning. “I think I was more nervous than he was.”
Back in control, Manning operated as if the torn plantar fascia in his left foot never hurt. He guided scoring drives on his first three possessions. He proved effective and unselfish. Manning completed two passes for 20 yards on the first drive, with Anderson carrying the freight before a 1-yard touchdown plunge.
For the Broncos, a 14-13 lead this season comes with drama beyond the quarterback position. After Manning’s second possession produced a 48-yard Brandon McManus field goal, swelling the lead to 17-13, the Chargers pounced.
Quarterback Philip Rivers, who was motivated to spoil the Broncos’ playoff road map, found receiver Tyrell Williams streaking uncovered down the middle of the field. Cornerback Aqib Talib jumped a short route and safety Josh Bush had no angle for a tackle as the Chargers moved ahead 20-17 with 12:58 remaining.
“I haven’t had many 80-yard touchdowns, so that was awesome,” Rivers said.
Manning, who finished 5-for-9 for 69 yards, stayed calm. He completed passes to receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. The next drive stalled when the Chargers’ Cordarro Law smashed into Anderson for no gain. Back came McManus, whose 35-yard field goal made it 20-20.
Fittingly, the defense, which led the league in fewest yards allowed for the first time in franchise history, provided the final slug to the gut. Playing additional snaps after Darian Stewart’s hamstring injury, safety Shiloh Keo intercepted an overthrown pass, setting up Hillman’s goahead score.
“It was a perfect call for what they were doing,” said Hillman after the Broncos rushed for a season-high 210 yards.
Moments later, a fourth-down attempt by Rivers died on an incomplete pass, leaving the Broncos and their fans celebrating to House of Pain’s “Jump Around” as time expired.
Osweiler completed 14-of-22 passes for 232 yards, throwing one touchdown and two interceptions. He handled his demotion with the same poise and professionalism that helped elevate him to starting status.
“As a competitor you want to play, but at the same time I completely understood what Coach Kubiak was trying to do,” Osweiler said. “There’s no hard feelings. The greatest aspect about us is that we are a team. That’s what makes us special and what will allow us a chance for a run in the playoffs.”
Like a pitcher with fielders committing errors behind him, Osweiler’s stats became clouded. Denver receiver Jordan Norwood let a pass slip through his fingers, and Chargers linebacker Melvin Ingram raked Osweiler’s arm as he threw, causing his second interception. It was part of a forgettable day for right tackle Michael Schofield, who was benched in favor of Tyler Polumbus when Manning went into the game.
“Those weren’t on Brock. We just kind of bogged down,” tight end Owen Daniels said.
The Broncos desperately needed a spark from a 39-yearold who continued his interrupted rage against the dying light. Amid speculation he was finished, Manning became the closer, producing the first and possibly last save of his career.
“I had just never been through anything like this before,” Manning said. “I don’t know what can prepare you for this. ... It was just better execution, and I just think maybe the football gods smiled upon us a little more in the second half.”
Peyton Manning was all smiles Sunday after helping the Broncos beat the Chargers 27-20 and secure home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs.
Broncos running back C.J. Anderson breaks away from Chargers safety Jahleel Addae during the third quarter of Sunday’s regularseason finale at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Anderson finished with 95 yards on 15 carries. Helen Richardson, The Denver Post