By Mark Schiff
Bet you didn’t see THAT coming.
In a season full of twists and turns, exhilarating wins and heartbreaking losses, Denver saved the craziest for the last. Thanks to New England’s stunning loss to Miami earlier in the day, the Broncos knew they could clinch the No. 1 seed in the AFC and their fifth-straight division title with a win over the wobegone San Diego Chargers. Simple, right?
Not so fast. Denver jumped out to a 7-0 lead :31 seconds into the game, then proceeded to add a dash of drama thanks to five turnovers on offense. With San Diego taking a 13-7 lead in the third quarter, head coach Gary Kubiak went to backup quarterback Peyton Manning, who hadn’t played since his disastrous performance against the Chiefs on Nov. 15. The veteran gunslinger provided a spark on offense and lead the team to 20 second-half points en route to Denver’s 27-20 win over the Chargers.
Like we said: Wow.
With the road to the Super Bowl running through the Mile High City, here are your Week 17 Team Grades.
It’s tough to give an offense that committed five turnovers a passing grade, but this was a highly unconventional game. The Broncos moved the ball at will in the first half (and finished the game with over 500 yards), but repeatedly shot themselves in the foot courtesy of two interceptions and two fumbles. After C.J. Anderson gave the ball away again on Denver’s first possession of the second half, Kubiak went to Manning to create a sense of urgency. His final numbers may not have been spectacular (5/9 for 69 yards), but Manning indeed brought some exigency to the offense, leading the team on a no-huddle touchdown drive on his first possession. His poise and leadership were crucial in the victory.
And after struggling through most of the season, the running game finally appears to be rounding into form as the playoffs approach. Denver rushed for a season-high 210 yards, with Ronnie Hillman and Anderson each carrying the ball 15 times and both players breaking off big runs and finding the end zone. Denver’s suspect offensive line also played relatively well and their two star receivers, Demaryius Thomas (117 yards) and Emmanuel Sanders (99 yards), had solid games, making this one of the offense’s best performances of the season, turnovers aside.
Aided by Aqib Talib’s uncharacteristic mistake on a long touchdown pass, Denver’s defense may have surrendered too many points and yards to a banged up San Diego team; but they did a superb job mitigating the damage caused by the turnovers on offense and they once again flashed their penchant for late-game heroics, with new safety Shiloh Keo picking off Rivers on a big fourth quarter drive before helping seal the game with a fourth down stop on the Chargers’ last possession. DeMarcus Ware’s injury is disconcerting, but Denver’s defense is playing at a championship level and, as they have all season, looks to be the unit that anchors the team’s success in the playoffs.
Special Teams: B
Brandon McManus has been on the slide but his 48-yard fourth quarter field goal was a huge play in the game, as was his 38-yard game-tying kick later in the quarter. McManus also didn’t allow a kick return by booming them all out of the end zone and Denver’s excellent punt coverage nearly forced a turnover in the fourth quarter.
Gary Kubiak solidified his case for Coach of the Year with his decision-making in the Broncos biggest game of the season. Despite his three turnovers, Brock Osweiler was not the main source of the offense’s problems, yet Kubiak correctly ascertained that Manning would provide the team with the spark it desperately needed. That choice may have been the difference between the No.1 and No. 5 seed in the playoffs and it was entirely based around his intuition of what the team needed at the time.
It’s also a decision that will have major repercussions over the next two weeks as fans and pundits debate which quarterback is best equipped to lead the team in the playoffs. But compared to the prospect of playing again in seven days, Kubiak will gladly take the quarterback quandary.
Mark Schiff is a freelance writer and music journalist for AXS.com. In 2013, his coverage of the Seattle Seahawks ended in heartbreak when they defeated the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. Now covering his beloved hometown team, his knowledge and passion for pro football has resulted in multiple fantasy football championships. Find him on Twitter at @mihilites.