Life in the National Football League can be brutal. A player can be a national hero on top of the world one week, and be cast aside or lose his job the next week. Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is an excellent example of this. In 2013, Manning turned in the greatest single season by a quarterback in NFL history. He followed that up with another strong season in 2014, and led the Broncos to a 7-2 start to the 2015 season.
After being pulled from the game amidst a disastrous performance against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 10, the Broncos officials revealed that Manning had been dealing with a torn plantar fascia in his left foot for the entire season. In response, Denver head coach Gary Kubiak inserted backup quarterback Brock Osweiler in the starting lineup to give Manning a chance to rest and rehabilitate his injury. After Osweiler led the Broncos to a 4-2 record — which included wins over the New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals — Kubiak announced that Osweiler would remain the team’s starting quarterback even if Manning was healthy enough to return.
All said, Manning had gone from being the NFL MVP to being a backup quarterback in less than two years. Just when it looked like we had seen Manning play his last snap as a member of the Broncos — and possibly as an NFL quarterback — Kubiak elected to turn the reins of his offense back over to the 39-year-old signal caller shortly after halftime during the team’s game against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday.
Under Osweiler, the Broncos offense had turned the ball over five times — Osweiler was responsible for three of them — in just over two quarters against the Chargers. (Before we go on, we need mention the fact that Osweiler can really only be blamed for one, maybe two, of the turnovers he was responsible for.) Nevertheless, when Manning took over, he led the Broncos on four scoring drives (two field goals and two touchdowns), and helped them fight back from a 13-7 deficit to claim their fifth straight AFC West division title and the No. 1 seed in the AFC Playoffs with a 27-20 win.
While clinching a division title and home-field advantage throughout the AFC Playoffs was cause for celebration in Denver, the Broncos’ ongoing quarterback controversy just got a lot more confusing. However, in our eyes, any and all questions as to who should be the Broncos’ starting quarterback moving forward were clearly answered in the second half of their Week 17 win over the Chargers.
We were fortunate enough to be among the 75,000 or so people in attendance at Sports Authority Field at Mile High during the Broncos’ win on Sunday. When Manning entered there was a noticeable change in the atmosphere throughout the venue. Fans instantly rose to their feet and turned what had become a dead atmosphere for the first 37 minutes of the game into a raucous environment. More importantly, though, Manning’s teammates looked like they received a shot of life when the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yardage and passing touchdowns entered the game.
On Manning’s first drive, he led the team on an efficient, eight-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that more closely resembled something we would have expected out of the 2013 Broncos rather than this year’s team. From that point on, everybody in attendance — including the 46 players on the Broncos’ sideline, who suddenly appeared to be unwaveringly confident in their abilities — seemed to know that the game against the Chargers was no longer in doubt.
With homefield advantage throughout the playoffs in hand, the Broncos are now the team to beat in the AFC. They have the league’s best defense, and Kubiak’s decision to replace Michael Schofield with veteran Tyler Polumbus at right tackle looks like it may have solidified one of the league’s shakiest offensive lines. Now, with all due respect to Osweiler, who did a standup job in his seven fill-in starts, the Broncos need to commit to Manning for the rest of the season if they truly want to bring home the third Lombardi Trophy in franchise history.
Let’s also not forget that the Broncos wouldn’t have won their second Super Bowl title in 1998 without the contributions of backup quarterback, Bubby Brister, who started four games during the regular season in place of the greatest player in Broncos history, John Elway, who is now ironically the team’s general manager. However, there was never any question that Denver was Elway’s team when the postseason came around.
Statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com.