Peyton Manning returns, leads Broncos to top-seed in AFC

In Sunday’s game against the San Diego Chargers, Denver Broncos quarterback Brock Osweiler was removed from the game, and for the first time since November, Peyton Manning was under center (or more likely, in the shotgun) once again. What changed so drastically that caused head-coach Gary Kubiak to make the switch once again?

usa-today-8778598.0Kubiak shocked the football world when he decided to start Brock Osweiler instead of Peyton Manning in Week 11 of the NFL season. The previous week, Manning had been removed during the game after perhaps the worst performance of his career: only a 25% completion and 4 interceptions.

Since Osweiler was named the starter, the Broncos went 4-2, including wins over other playoff-bound teams the New England Patriots and the Cincinnati Bengals. Take a look at Osweiler’s statistics in six games as a starter, prior to Sunday’s finale against the Chargers:

Yards Yards/Game CMP% TDs INTs
1589 264.8 0.62 8 3

Although these numbers are not MVP-quality, Osweiler was performing much better than Manning, who was in the midst of the worst season of his career. For comparison, look at Manning’s numbers through the first eight games of the season:

Yards Yards/Game CMP% TDs INTs
2145 268.1 0.623 9 13

Both quarterbacks provided about the same offensive output, except for one key statistic: interceptions. There is no worse play as a quarterback than an interception. It ruins the momentum of the offense, takes potential points off the scoreboard, and worse yet, usually leads to points for the opponent.

usa-today-9035850.0Manning, as it turns out, had been dealing with a torn plantar fascia in his left foot. This would cause tremendous discomfort and make it more difficult for Manning to easily step into his throws. At the time, the decision to start Osweiler was defensible, even if it was surprising.

Now, over a month-and-a-half later, Manning has returned to the field. Kubiak saw his young quarterback Osweiler struggling against the Chargers, and removed him in the 3rd quarter. Osweiler had thrown two interceptions and lost a fumble, which prompted Kubiak to return the offensive reins to Manning.

The Broncos turned five offensive drives into 20 points thanks to Manning, and closed out the season with a victory. This victory also placed the Broncos in the number-one playoff seed in the AFC, something that seemed impossible as recently as last week.

Manning performed better than could be expected, even if the numbers don’t show the effect he had on the game. Manning threw for 69 yards, and no touchdowns. He took care of the ball though, not giving up any fumbles or throwing any interceptions. Manning wasn’t perfect by any means, but he was good enough to get the job done.

Now, with a week to rest thanks to their first-round bye as the number-one seed, Kubiak will have to make the decision on which quarterback he wants to start in the AFC Divisional Round of the playoffs. The same decision he was tasked with in November, only this time the stakes are much higher.

In Manning, the Broncos have a “quick-fix.” Manning had difficulty this season, with injuries and turnovers, and all signs point to this being Manning’s last season. If the Broncos decide to start Manning, they will allow him to go out in his own way: win or lose, they’ll support the old gunslinger one last time.

In Osweiler, the Broncos have the future. Drafted in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft, Osweiler has waited patiently behind Manning for years. If the Broncos decide to start Osweiler, it means they are committed to the future. The Broncos will allow him to make his own mistakes, and in turn, become a better player because of this.

No matter what the Broncos and Kubiak decide, they will likely face heavy criticism. Manning looked capable against the Chargers, but his previous starts this season paint an uglier picture. Osweiler played adequately during his time as a starter, but the Broncos may think that Manning has “one last run” in him.

The Broncos have two weeks to make their decision, so until then, we will wait.

Statistics provided by: ESPN.com and pro-football-reference.com

Images from USA Today, Fox Sports,  and Jack Dempsey

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