The Denver Broncos named quarterback Peyton Manning their starter for the AFC Divisional round over Brock Osweiler on Thursday, but it’s no clear-cut indication the 39-year-old is fully fit and healthy enough to help the No. 1 seed advance in the postseason.
The choice makes sense when taking in the full breadth of Manning’s career. However, while head coach Gary Kubiak’s decision may be an excellent vote of confidence in Manning’s health and abilities to return as full-time starter, there is no telling how he will perform in a full game. It hasn't just been Manning's foot that has bothered him, it's also been a sore shoulder, a surgically repaired neck, sore ribs and a knee that requires a support brace.
In fact, the decision to go with Manning could simply be a result of Osweiler spraining his knee in Week 17 and Kubiak saying the fourth-year passer won’t practice Friday or Saturday, according to the Denver Post. Osweiler’s still expected to be the No. 2 quarterback next week, but his health and the lack of depth behind him and Manning are concerning.
Manning returned from a six-game hiatus to provide relief for Osweiler in Denver’s 27-20 regular season finale victory over San Diego, completing five of his nine passes for 69 yards and guiding the Broncos on four successful scoring drives after a tear in his plantar fascia near his left heel put his career in jeopardy.
Kubiak pulled Manning in favor of Osweiler back in Week 10, when the five-time MVP heaved four interceptions and completed just five of his 20 passes for 35 yards in Denver’s eventual 29-13 loss to Kansas City.
The game was a big disappointment for Broncos fans and long admirers of Manning, who has made his name as the one of the most dominant and intelligent passers to ever play the game. Yet, his arm strength, accuracy, and health seemed in shambles seven weeks ago. Firing off nine touchdowns to a woeful 17 interceptions, all told, Manning was completing his passes at his lowest rate since his rookie season in 1998 and was well on pace to exceed that year’s career-worst 28 interceptions.
During his time off, Manning rehabbed and rested his injured foot, and time away may have been all he needed to rediscover the form that made him a future Hall of Famer.
Yet, given the punishing defensive units in this year’s playoff field, it’s fair to presume the Broncos will have Manning on a short leash and any signs of further injury will result in Osweiler trotting out in relief.
After stealing the conference’s top seed away from rival New England thanks to Osweiler and a Pro-Bowl-laden defense, Denver will face the AFC’s lowest seed next weekend, which could be Pittsburgh, Kansas City, or Houston.
Or rather one of the NFL’s five-best pass rushing units. The Steelers were third (48.0 sacks), Kansas City fourth (47.0), and Houston fifth (45.0) during the regular season, with the Texans also ranked seventh with 106 quarterback hits.
Any one of those defenses will scheme to hitting and knocking Manning down as often as possible, which could lead Denver’s hopes of a second Super Bowl run in the last three years to a dead end.