Editor's note: Moments after Peyton Manning led the Denver Broncos to a comeback win over the San Diego Chargers, an already brewing quarterback controversy steamed over. The question: Who should start under center for Denver in its first playoff game, slated for Sunday, January 17: Peyton or Brock Osweiler, who won four of six games after taking over in November for an injured Manning? Yesterday, Brian Badzmierowski shared why he thinks Brock should take over the starting job again. Today, Thomas Mitchell offers his pro-Peyton perspective.
Media gasbags like me were handed a golden goose on Sunday when Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak benched quarterback Brock Osweiler in favor of backup (that feels weird to type) Peyton Manning in the midst of Denver's ugly 27-20 win over the San Diego Chargers. Down 13-7, with five turnovers credited to the offense (most of which weren't Osweiler's fault), Kubiak turned the team over to the 39-year-old, recently embattled Manning, who helped orchestrate a comeback to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Kubiak wouldn't tell reporters on Monday who will start next week's game and said there was no timetable for his decision.
Who should start for the Broncos in the next playoffs game? Manning — and here are ten reasons why.
10. The defense is too good now to worry about the future
If you want Brock Osweiler to start because you think he's a better option, that's a respectable stance. But nobody wants to hear about the future when the Broncos have the number-one seed in the AFC and the top-ranked overall defense in the league right now. Playoff games are nice learning experiences for young quarterbacks when the team doesn't have a realistic chance to win it all, but this one does. The defenses Denver will face are only going to get better as the playoffs continue, but will the offense improve enough under Osweiler for Kubiak to continue to play him? If it doesn't work out and Kubiak is forced to go to Manning again, the musical chairs at the offense's most important position could hinder the whole team.
9. Kubiak is feeling the pressure
There's no reason to believe that Kubiak dislikes Osweiler or doubts that he can be a viable starter for next season — but the coach went into the second half of last week's win looking for a reason to put Manning in the game. During Sunday's post-game press conference, Kubiak said he asked Manning if he was ready to go at halftime, and that's not a conversation most coaches have if they haven't already made their minds up. If the Broncos needed Manning in the most important game of the regular season, why bench him in one that matters even more?
8. Peyton's brain
You've seen how big his noggin is. Some say that red helmet mark is just his magnificent brain trying to escape the tall cranium it calls home. Others believe the only reason he's in so many commercials is to fund a machine that will someday implant his mind into a Cam Newton-like body. All I'll say is that he's a genius at the line of scrimmage who would've seen the blitzes Osweiler failed to pick up last Sunday, and he called audibles for several running plays that went for ten-plus yards.
7. C.J. Anderson has a pulse now
When the offense struggled under Manning before the debacle in week ten against the Kansas City Chiefs, the running game had yet to produce at a high level, averaging only 86 rushing yards per game through its first nine contests. Since then, Denver has racked up an average of 135 rushing yards per game, and much of it is thanks to C.J. Anderson's awakening. After a garbage 38.3-rushing-yards-per-game average and one touchdown through his first ten games, Anderson ran through defenses in his last five (he missed one game with an injured ankle), with a 6.74-yards-per-carry average and four touchdowns. If Anderson can continue to play thunder to Ronnie Hillman's lightning speed, Manning could get the help he was looking for earlier in the season.
6. Only one of Denver’s potential AFC opponents has seen Manning this year
The Broncos are slated to play the Pittsburgh Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs or Houston Texans in the second round and possibly the New England Patriots or Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC championship. Three of those teams have already seen Osweiler, but only one (Kansas City) has faced Manning. Although Osweiler played fairly well in games against New England, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, the Patriots were a muffed punt away from closing out a win in Denver, the Bengals started a backup quarterback who barely hit the 200-yard passing mark and the Steelers held the Broncos offense scoreless in the second half. It’s rare for a young, developing quarterback to beat a playoff team twice in one season, and Osweiler might be asked to do that a few times if chosen to start.
5. Experience matters
Few active players, if any, have seen as many schemes and defenses as Manning. With six-plus games of film to watch Osweiler, defensive coordinators around the league have already started to figure out ways to confuse him in coverage. Manning's stat line from Sundays win wasn't jaw-dropping (5/9 for 69 yards), but it's no coincidence that C.J Anderson and Ronnie Hillman found running lanes in the second half that didn't exist in the first. Manning has also been in the center of meetings with receivers on the sidelines during games that Osweiler starts, with the ladder absent from the huddle. This shouldn't be alarming; Manning's a veteran leader, and Osweiler is still learning how to take control of a team. But it shows who the offense looks to for guidance in-game.
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4. This isn't the regular season anymore
We've all seen rookie or first-year starting quarterbacks lead their teams to unexpectedly strong regular seasons, but Denver won't be playing a bunch of sub-.500 teams or backup quarterbacks that beat themselves in the playoffs. When young quarterbacks get their first taste of the playoffs, it's usually a bitter one. Current notable names with ProFootballReference.com quarterback ratings below 60 for their first playoff game include Andrew Luck, Andy Dalton, Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco. One quality they all had in common: They were first-year starters.
3. Defenses adapt to Brock
As i mentioned previously, the Steelers held the Broncos scoreless in the second half when the teams played in December, but it wasn't the only team to do so during the last five games of the season. In fact, the Broncos were held scoreless in the second half for three straight games under Osweiler, with the Chargers and Oakland Raiders putting the clamps on Denver before Pittsburgh did. What does that say? Teams adjust to him in-game. By jamming his receivers at the line of scrimmage and blitzing an extra defender or two to bring pressure, San Diego confused Osweiler during their second meeting, and it's quite possible that Cincinnati or Pittsburgh would do the same.
2. Peyton's finally healthy
Manning's best statistical game of the season came against the Green Bay Packers (21-29 for 340 yards), which was right after the Broncos' bye week. He was also able to line up under center on Sunday night (something he rarely did before Osweiler took over) after a few weeks of rest for a partially torn plantar fascia in his foot, and his throws had more zip than usual. Obviously, he's not going to chuck forty-yard bombs all day like Osweiler can, but his improved mobility while dropping back and his ability to hand the ball off in I-formations was enough proof of his physical ability to give him the starting job again.
1. He's Peyton Fucking Manning
Yeah, I get it: He's not the same version of PFM who smashed scoring records and secondaries in 2012 and 2013. But he's still not dead and buried. And while the alternative is decent, he's no Steve Young yet. Ask the Washington Wizards how they fared after replacing Michael Jordan with Jerry Stackhouse. What? They were both bad and boring to watch, you say? The future Hall of Famer came to Denver to win himself and this city a Super Bowl, so I want to see what is likely to be his final chapter here play out like it should. Let the ol' sheriff ride off into the sunset....or buck into it on a Bronco, at least.