With the No.1 seed in the AFC and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Denver Broncos are in the driver’s seat to reach Super Bowl 50. But the team hasn’t decided which quarterback will lead their attempt to win a championship.
Brock Osweiler started six games in Peyton Manning’s absence, but the future Hall of Famer has recovered from his foot injury. The two signal callers split time in Sunday’s win over the San Diego Chargers, and head coach Gary Kubiak isn’t ready to name a starter for the team’s first playoff game in two weeks.
"I have nothing for you today,” Kubiak told reporters on Monday. "I have no timeline. I am focused on how to get ready for the game. Our players will not be in the dark. We will know what the direction is."
Manning will get the call if Kubiak makes his decision based on experience, which he very well might do. Manning has 24 career playoff starts, while Osweiler has never seen action in the postseason. But if Kubiak wants to start the quarterback that gives Denver the best chance to win, the answer isn’t a simple one.
Before he went down with an injury, Manning was a shell of his old self. He ended the regular season with the NFL’s worst passer rating, and an argument can be made that no quarterback put up worse numbers in 2015. Even though he missed six games, Manning still managed to finish second in the league with 17 interceptions, and it’s difficult to imagine this version of Peyton Manning starting for a Super Bowl winner.
The return of Manning coincided with Denver’s comeback on Sunday, but he didn’t necessarily play better than Osweiler. Manning completed five of nine passes for 69 yards, and he was aided by a Broncos rushing attack that ended the day with 210 yards on the ground. Osweiler completed 14 of 22 passes for 232 yards and a touchdown, and his two interceptions weren’t necessarily his fault. Osweiler also fumbled once.
There’s no arguing that Osweiler put up better numbers than Manning in the regular season. The career backup topped Manning in passer rating (86.4 to 67.9), completion percentage (61.8 to 59.8) and yards per attempt (7.15 to 6.8). Osweiler’s 10 touchdown passes also surpassed Manning’s nine scores, even though he played in two fewer games. Manning threw one pick for every 19.5 pass attempts, while Osweiler was picked off once every 45.8 attempts. Osweiler has also proved he can scramble for yards when given the opportunity, rushing for 61 yards and a touchdown on 21 attempts.
But replacing Manning with Osweiler at the midway point didn’t exactly jumpstart a struggling Denver offense. In fact, the Broncos did a better job of scoring with Manning at the helm. In the eight games that only Manning played at quarterback, the Broncos averaged 23.6 points per game. In the six games in which Manning didn’t take the field, Denver put up just 19 points per game, which would rank them 28th in the league.
Denver went 7-2 with Manning as the starter, and 5-2 when Osweiler began the game under center. Which quarterback has the best chance of winning three straight playoff games and giving the Broncos their first title since John Elway retired?
With a bye on Wild-Card Weekend, Kubiak has time to evaluate each player in practice and make a final decision. No matter who gets the call, the Broncos might not have what it takes to defeat the New England Patriots, who are the Super Bowl favorites.
Osweiler has struggled at times, but he’s had a few standout moments as well. The 25-year-old posted a 127.1 passer rating in his first start, and he registered a 100.3 passer rating in a win against the Cincinnati Bengals, who might have the AFC’s best defense. Osweiler even defeated Tom Brady and the Patriots, whom Manning has struggled against historically.
He was serviceable in the regular season finale, but Manning has proven to be a liability for Denver. The quarterback posted a passer rating of less than 70.0 in five of his nine starts, and he’s bound to cost the Broncos if he starts three games against quality opponents. With a sub-.500 career postseason record, Manning’s experience isn’t enough to make up for how poorly he’s played in the last year. His struggles date back to last year’s playoffs, and Denver could be headed for another early exit if he gets the nod.
But Kubiak may have no choice to go with Manning if the veteran puts more zip on his passes in practice, and proves he has fully overcome any physical problems. Otherwise, Osweiler deserves to be named the starter.