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In securing AFC’s top seed, Manning leaves Broncos with a tough decision

Peyton Manning came off the bench to lead the Broncos to the AFC’s top seed. Now Gary Kubiak has a choice to make.

Halfway through the third quarter of his team’s Week 17 game, Broncos coach Gary Kubiak had seen enough of Brock Osweiler. Denver was down 13–7 to the Chargers with the No. 1 seed in the AFC on the line, thanks to the Patriots’ loss to the Dolphins earlier in the day. Osweiler, who had started at quarterback in place of Peyton Manning since he’d been out with a foot injury and other ailments since mid-November, did not play well in his two-and-a-half quarters. He completed 14 of 22 passes for 232 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, but one of those picks was off a dropped pass.

Osweiler also connected with Demaryius Thomas on a 72-yard touchdown pass, and Denver had three plays of 30 yards or more in the first half alone. Certainly, Kubiak could have been forgiven for leaving Osweiler in over Manning, who until Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles passed him on Sunday still led the NFL in interceptions despite missing time.

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Clearly, something about this game changed Kubiak’s mind. He inserted Manning into the offense, and things immediately turned around for the Broncos—though how much of that was directly due to Manning’s presence is debatable. The veteran completed 5 of 9 passes for 59 yards and no touchdowns, and those who would prefer to turn his second-half relief appearance into a myth will tell you that it was much more than stats.

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“Sometimes, you just feel that the team’s looking around for ... that guy, or that tremendous leadership type of stuff,” Kubiak said after the game. “And I know with Peyton—the last couple of weeks have been good weeks, and I knew he was ready to go. I don’t think Brock did anything wrong. We had turnovers, but a couple definitely weren’t on him, we could have helped him a lot. But just my gut told me to turn it over to him and let him lead the football team. I’m very proud of him. He's worked really hard to stay there for us, and it couldn’t be a bigger day to be there for us.”

The Broncos did benefit from Manning’s ability to manipulate a defense pre-snap. With Manning audibling to the run a lot early on, the Broncos ran far more effectively, and Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson scored touchdowns on the ground. However, the team also replaced overmatched right tackle Michael Schofield with veteran Tyler Polumbus around that same time, and Polumbus proved to be a much better blocker. Manning took a fourth-quarter sack that was more of a coverage sack than anything else: He was looking around for seconds for an open man and got drilled by linebacker Melvin Ingram.

Kubiak first turned to Osweiler during Denver’s Week 10 loss to the Chiefs when Manning, struggling through several different injuries and the general decline of his skill set, had his worst day as a pro, completing just 5 of 20 passes for 35 yards and an astounding four interceptions. Osweiler proved to be more capable of carrying the team, though the 2012 second-round pick was limited to a degree by his lack of in-game experience, and the decision was made to let Manning heal and see how everything worked out. After Osweiler completed 27 of 39 passes for 299 yards and a touchdown in a crucial Monday night win over the Bengals in Week 16, Kubiak announced that Osweiler would be the Week 17 starter no matter what.

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Now, of course, Kubiak has a major choice to make: Does he go with the kid, who’s played well for the most part, or sideline Osweiler (who, by the way, will be a free agent in March) in the hope that, with home field advantage all the way through the playoffs, there’s enough magic left in Manning’s arm and brain to make a Super Bowl run? Either way, the potential for falling flat on his face is fairly enormous. If Manning plays like he has played most of the year, that may bring about a quick and ignominious end for one of the greatest players in NFL history. If Kubiak goes with Osweiler and that doesn’t work well, he’ll be labeled by some as the dork who didn’t ride the Manning momentum, no matter how specious that concept may be.

“We’re going to enjoy winning tonight,” Kubiak said. “We’ll give the guys a break here, hopefully get some guys fresh, and we’re going to get back to work on Thursday morning. But I’ll sit down with both of those guys. The great thing is that it took everyone on our team to get to this point. Everybody. And it’s going to take everybody we have to take it the rest of the way. We’ll sit down and make a decision that’s best for the football team, and we’ll continue to count on everybody to do their part.”

Manning agreed, adding that his physical condition will play a part in that decision.

"Look, we’ve got two weeks before we play again. I’ve got to see how I feel tomorrow, see how my foot feels. I got a good welcome back to on-the-field football by somebody hitting me hard and left a little message as he was getting up. He kind of used me to help him get up. My chest—he got me right in the chest. I’ve got to see how I feel tomorrow. I’m glad we won the division. I’m glad we won this game today. That would have been pretty sickening [to lose]. It’s been a different year. I was glad to be able to contribute in some way today.”

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As far as what this does to Osweiler’s confidence, I tend to think that’s an overblown narrative. Throughout his time as a starter, Osweiler has been up front and honest about the fact that this is a learning process for him, and the need for his team to wrap up the top seed by any means necessary trumps any hurt feelings or stunted development. If Osweiler can’t handle a one-time decision like this (which I think he can), he may not be future NFL starter material (which I believe he is).

“The emotions were high and low, and as a player you always try to keep them right in the middle," he said. "Unfortunately, we weren’t putting up points on the board early in the first half. We were moving the ball, we just weren’t getting it in the end zone, so it was tough on the emotions. To come out in the second half and as a team get a huge home win and win the AFC West, that’s what it is all about. When we show up for training camp, when we show up for spring ball that’s our number one goal: win the division, get to the playoffs. For us to do that today, I couldn’t be any happier. [I’m] so happy to be a part of this team and it was a huge team win.”

Either way, with a bye week for Kubiak to consider his choice, this will be a most interesting time in the Mile-High City.