DENVER — Sunday night at a snowy Sports Authority Field showed us and the rest of the NFL that the Denver Broncos have a big-time quarterback, a reliable and productive running game and one of the best defenses in the league: just the winning formula they planned on all along this season.
They just don’t have exactly the quarterback we all expected them to have as the season’s stretch run arrives. If there’s one thing that was made clear by the Broncos’ dramatic 30–24 overtime win against the previously unbeaten New England Patriots here, it was this: Sunday’s Brock Osweiler-inspired comeback means Peyton Manning won’t.
Come back, that is.
At least not all the way back this season, into the Denver starting quarterback job that Manning surrendered due to injury two weeks ago. This is suddenly Osweiler’s time, his team, and his town. It was a game that will likely go down in Broncos history as his coming-out party, and essentially signaled that it’s time to start working on Peyton’s goodbye party.
“He’s a big-time player, a big-time player,” Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders said of Osweiler, who was making just his second NFL start and first ever at home. “I’ll tell you what, I’m not going to shoot the gun too early, but I think the Broncos have found their guy. Obviously for the long haul. I know (Broncos general manager John) Elway’s excited and I know the whole Broncos organization is excited. I’m just happy to be a part of it.”
It’s a cold business, the NFL. But Osweiler sent the frozen Denver fans home with the warm feeling that this season might just work out after all. Down 21–7 to the vaunted, perfect-season Patriots early in the fourth quarter, the Broncos scored 17 points to take a 24–21 lead with 1:09 remaining, and then withstood a game-tying 47-yard New England field goal at the end of regulation. In overtime, Osweiler and the Broncos would not be denied, with running back C.J. Anderson’s 48-yard game-winning run sending the sold-out crowd of almost 77,000 into a state of delirium just 2:28 into overtime.
“It was wonderful to see Brock come out and play and have great clutch moments,” Denver cornerback Aqib Talib said. “He had one fluke interception, but the man played great. He really did. It was fun to watch. It was amazing. He played with confidence, he played with poise. He played a great game. This game felt like some kind of championship game, or playoff game. It was one of the more exciting games I’ve ever played in.”
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Manning already feels like something of an afterthought in Denver. But this story may well play out without much drama, because he’s thought to still be weeks away from full health, with his foot still in a cast and walking boot as he attempts to recover from a partially torn plantar fascia.
In the meantime, the Broncos are coming together rapidly behind Osweiler and their vastly improved running game. As he did last week in Chicago, the fourth-year quarterback showed again that this moment is not too big for him, with his 270-yard, one-touchdown, one-interception passing performance featuring connections with nine different Denver receivers.
“He’s confident, and the thing is, Brock’s been waiting on this opportunity, and he’s making the most of it,” said Sanders, who caught a team-high six passes for 113 yards, including the key 39-yard catch that set up Denver’s go-ahead four-yard Andre Caldwell touchdown grab late in regulation. “I didn’t learn anything new about Brock tonight. It was everything I always knew about him. We could be losing 40 to zero and Brock’s still walking up and down the sidelines telling us, ‘Let’s go.’ He’s always an optimistic guy. He comes into the huddle with a presence about himself and obviously it helped tonight.”
Here’s what also helped Denver (9–2) become the first team to beat New England (10–1) since Week 17 of last season: a resurgent two-headed Broncos running game that totaled 179 yards on 32 carries (5.6 average), with three touchdowns produced.
Anderson was a chains-moving force all night, with 113 yards on 15 carries, and 40 more yards on four catches. His 15-yard fourth-quarter touchdown scamper started the Broncos’ comeback, and his game-winner around left end, just three plays into Denver’s overtime possession, ended it. Ronnie Hillman added 59 yards and a touchdown on 14 rushes, and if the Broncos keep those two rolling throughout December and into the playoffs, Denver’s defense and quarterbacking will look all the better for it.
“The way it happened, it was like a walk-off home run,” said Sanders, of Anderson’s lightning bolt of a game winner. “All you can do is put your hands up in the air and say, ‘Thank God.”
On Anderson’s run, the Broncos faced a third-and-1, and Denver coach Gary Kubiak called two running plays, trusting his lightly experienced quarterback to read the defense and get his team into the best possible play.
“He’s very composed,” Kubiak said of Osweiler. “He handles himself very well. Even the turnover tonight (on a pass that was picked off by Chandler Jones, after Osweiler’s arm was hit) didn’t bother him. He just keeps going. You’ve got to give him credit. He was patient in there in at the end as far as getting us in the right running plays — just very composed to get that done for us.’’
Osweiler comes across as confident without being cocky, and he said he felt ready for that type of veteran leadership moment long ago. Long before he got the opportunity to prove it.
“I like to think that I could have changed that play my rookie year,” he said. “It’s just something we worked on during the week. We said specifically if they came out in a certain front, the run that we had called was no good. It was no good in that situation, so I just checked to the second play, and the offensive line and C.J. did a hell of a job.’’
This outcome could have major ramifications in the AFC playoff seeding race, and not just because the Patriots lost game-changing tight end Rob Gronkowski to a late-game right knee injury of undisclosed severity, or Denver saw defensive starters in safety T.J. Ward and defensive tackle Sylvester Williams leave with ankle issues in the game’s first half. It was a game that proves to Denver that the Patriots are indeed beatable, and makes the No. 3-seed Broncos hungry for more.
“That was a big win for us, a big game for us,” said Talib, the former Patriot. “To beat one of those upper seeds, the top seed in the AFC, and move up in the standings a little bit, that helps. For our mindset alone, just for us, to know whomever comes in here, they can get beat.”
With Osweiler under center, the Broncos are transitioning to a team that isn’t strictly quarterback-driven team any more. The running game and the Denver defense will have a very large say in how far this Broncos’ season extends. But Kubiak’s team and the Denver fans found out Sunday night what they have in Osweiler, and there’s plenty of potential there to work with, and win with.
One very important name has changed, but in Denver, the winning formula the Broncos expected to have this season just made a very timely arrival.