Nine good passes in relief of Brock Osweiler and almost two months recovery time have afforded Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning his first start since Week 10 as the team revs up for the Pittsburgh Steelers in Sunday’s AFC Divisional Round playoff.
With Manning seemingly in far better physical condition and in the face of Osweiler’s 5-2 mark as Denver’ starter while guiding the team to the AFC’s No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the postseason, Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak has named Manning the starter for the playoffs.
It’s a decision that could prove costly to Denver’s Super Bowl aspirations, especially since we haven’t seen Manning play well for an entire game arguably since last season. However, Manning did participate in all three of Denver’s practices last week and Osweiler was coming off a sprained knee that took him out in Week 17, and all signs point to Manning being as healthy as he was in Week 1.
In fact, Kubiak and many Broncos have said Manning gives Denver the best chance to win. Even Colorado governor John Hickenlooper endorsed the decision to start Manning.
The 39-year-old future Hall of Famer lost his starting duties to Osweiler after heaving four interceptions and completing just five of his 20 pass attempts against Kansas City way back on Nov. 15, with word later spreading Manning was dealing with a torn plantar fascia in his left foot as well as a lingering rib injury.
Before serving as a backup for the first time since his college days as a freshman at Tennessee, Manning was quickly spiraling downward throughout 2015 and Denver only managed to stay atop the conference due to its punishing and top-ranked defense.
Over nine starts this season, Manning tossed an interception in every game, and at least two in five games, ranking as the NFL’s interception leader for the season when he sat down. Furthermore, he showed little touch or accuracy on the majority of his throws, posting a 59.8 completion percentage that’s the lowest of his career since his rookie season. Manning was also well on pace for a career-low 67.9 passer rating and 2.7 touchdown-per-pass ratio as well as 6.9 yards per attempt, again only better than his first NFL season.
But Kubiak’s believes Manning gives Denver the best chance to excel in the postseason, even against a Steelers defense that ranked third in the league with 48 sacks and picked off opposing passers 17 times.
"I just did what I thought was best for the team," Kubiak said after naming Manning the starter last week. "I know one thing: He's doing everything that he was doing at the start of the season, the way he's throwing the ball and the way he's moving around. I don't have any doubts."
If Kubiak did have doubts they were likely erased by Manning’s intellect and experience under center. According to The Denver Post, other Broncos like running back C.J. Anderson said Manning’s meticulous and methodical audible calls at the line of scrimmage were on full display when he stepped in for Osweiler against rival San Diego in Week 17.
"We all know it's no shot to Brock," Anderson said. "Brock is just young in his career. One thing we just know Peyton has done all his career, he's put his team in the best plays. His audible system is up every play. That's one thing he does, and we saw that Sunday against the Chargers and you should see that more in the playoffs now that he was named the starter."
As Anderson directly said, Kubiak and the Broncos are relying on Manning’s 24 games as a postseason starter rather than the very green Osweiler’s lack of playoff experience.
But NFL analysts and prognosticators will quickly point to Manning’s 11-13 career mark in the postseason, as well as his largely average work in Denver’s loss to his old team, Indianapolis, last year.
Manning went 26-for-46 for 211 yards and one touchdown against the Colts, earning a 75.5 passer rating, the third-lowest of his career and worst since Seattle picked him off twice in the Super Bowl two seasons ago.
Though, perhaps the Broncos and Kubiak’s goal isn’t to have Manning throw 40, 30, or even 20 times. Instead Denver could allow Manning a few simple seam passes to stretch Pittsburgh’s linebackers and secondary, thus opening things up for Anderson and leading rusher Ronnie Hillman.
The Broncos may even face a gimpy Steelers offense, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger dealing with throwing shoulder injuries, top receiver Antonio Brown still under the NFL’s concussion protocol, and No. 1 running back DeAngelo Williams likely out for the second straight round.
The Broncos will quickly learn whether Manning should’ve been in the lineup at all by the end of the first half. Whether their up or down big.