Peyton Manning entered to a roaring ovation Sunday. To that point midway through the third quarter, the Broncos were down 13-7 to the Chargers despite outgaining them by 150 yards. They had committed five turnovers, of which quarterback Brock Osweiler committed three -- two interceptions and a fumble.
With Manning in the game, the Broncos quickly took back the lead, going 80 yards for a touchdown. Manning accounted for just 20 of those yards on two completions, but he also checked into the 18-yard C.J. Anderson run that put the Broncos on the goal line. After a couple tries, they finished the drive in the end zone.
Manning played well in his return, to be certain, especially compared to his last outing with the Broncos -- a 5-for-20, four-interception game against the Kansas City Chiefs which ended early for him when he suffered a torn plantar fascia. But let's make something clear: The Broncos looked largely like the team that has struggled at times over the second half of the season even as they went on to a 27-20 win. Manning is not a panacea.
To heap blame on Osweiler would be wrong. The fourth-year quarterback wasn't perfect, but healthy players usually get benched for much more. It's not his fault that Emmanuel Sanders fumbled at the 5-yard line at the end of a 46-yard connection. The last play before Osweiler was taken out of the game was a fumble by C.J. Anderson after a 6-yard gain. Osweiler still averaged 10.5 yards per attempt, and he has still been better by many statistical measures -- an 86.4 rating to Manning's 67.6.
The Broncos offense was more effective with Manning in the game. The running game thrived, in particular. It gained more than half of its 210 yards after Manning entered. Manning may have had something to do that, but to draw a correlation would be hasty. Osweiler played his best game in his first start after Manning was injured, going 20-for-27 for 250 yards and two touchdowns against the Chicago Bears, for example. At that point, Osweiler looked like the clear starter in Denver.
The Broncos offense was mediocre under Manning before he returned, averaging 22.8 points per game. Unless he's healthier now than he was to start the season, it's difficult to imagine the Broncos' offense being much better in the playoffs. Scoring was worse under Osweiler at 20.5 points per game, but the defense took an even bigger step back. It gave up 300 yards or more six times over its last nine games after giving up that many just twice in its first seven.
Sunday's win hinged on a defensive play and a run. Safety Shiloh Keo intercepted a deflected pass to put the Broncos on the Chargers' 23-yard line, and Ronnie Hillman did the rest by squirting up the right side for a touchdown on the next play. Manning may be an upgrade over Osweiler, but it's not clear yet that he will be.
The Broncos will find out whether they made the right decision in the playoffs.
* * *