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

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Troy E. Renck

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.”

Joe Amon, The Den­ver Post

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

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