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Instant reactions: Broncos dig deep, throw Peyton Manning curveball to prevail against Chargers

It took an immense amount of heart and a whole lot of guts for the Denver Broncos to pull out a memorable 27-20 victory over the San Diego Chargers that earned them their fifth straight AFC West Championship, a first-round bye and home field advantage in the playoffs.

Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Gut-wrenching. Insane. Mystifying. Out of this world.

What in the world did we just witness, Broncos Country?

It only took two plays for the Denver Broncos to get on the scoreboard against the San Diego Chargers. A 72-yard touchdown catch-and-run by Demaryius Thomas had everyone at Mile High confident in an easy victory, but today's game was anything but that. The Broncos didn't have any trouble moving the ball down the field in the game's opening half, but they proved to be their own worst enemy, shooting themselves in the foot untimely turnovers that caused even the most faithful of fans to boo their team at halftime.

Manning was a curveball to which the Chargers defense could not adjust or hit

Such a terrifying collapse on the offensive side of the ball led to perhaps one of the ultimate game-changing decisions in the history of the NFL.

Early in the third quarter, after a C.J. Anderson fumble that allowed the Chargers to go ahead 13-10, Head Coach Gary Kubiak opted to bench Brock Osweiler and bring in the savvy veteran, Peyton Manning, from his quarterback bullpen in order to ignite the fire necessary to propel the Broncos to a hard-fought 27-20 victory.

He didn't do it all on his own, but there is no doubting that Manning's ability to change protections and audible plays at the line of scrimmage was a curveball to which the Chargers defense could not adjust or hit.  Undoubtedly, it caught them off guard and there was nothing they could do to stop such a sleight of hand.

Could it be that Kubiak's decision to go to the bullpen for Manning was the magic rabbit out of the hat that the Broncos needed to fuel their fire to gain the #1 seed in the AFC for the playoffs? Maybe, maybe not — but all that matters right now is that the Denver Broncos are the AFC's #1 seed in the playoffs and have clinched home field advantage.  Moreover, they have earned an extra week off to get healthy as they prepare for the hallowed winter roads on the path to a Lombardi Trophy.


  • Before I get into the positives for the Broncos, I want to get one major negative out of the way. An inexcusable aspect of their performance today was certainly their penchant for turnovers.  Today they had five of them and their total on the season is the most of any playoff-bound team this season. In order for them to be successful in the post-season, they will have to do a better job at securing the ball.
  • With his brilliant performance today, Demaryius Thomas joined an elite group of receivers that include Marvin Harrison, Torry Holt and Jerry Rice as one of only four players with four consecutive seasons with at least 90 catches and 1,300 yards receiving. He ended the game with 5 catches for 117 yards and a touchdown.
  • Brock Osweiler (14/22 for 232 yards, 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions) didn't have the best game of his career, but it wasn't his worst either. He may have had two interceptions, but based on the game footage, the drop by Jordan Norwood and pressure allowed by Michael Schofield were the reasons those happened. They weren't bad decisions. Alas, Gary Kubiak opted to relieve him of his duties after the Chargers went up 13-7 in the third quarter and called upon heralded quarterback Peyton Manning to lead the Broncos to victory, who finished the game 5/9 for 69 yards.
  • The Broncos rushing attack is back and it couldn't have happened at a better time. Denver hit full throttle running the ball in the second half on the legs of C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman. The two combined for 30 carries and racked up 215 yards rushing, with two touchdowns. If they can keep that kind of play up and limit their turnovers in the playoffs, the sky is the limit for them.
  • The Broncos offensive line had some rotations throughout the game, with Max Garcia playing extensively and Louis Vasquez and Evan Mathis splitting time. The extra week off after clinching a first-round bye should help Vasquez and Mathis get healthy for the playoff stretch.

  • It took the benching of Brock Osweiler for Peyton Manning for the coaching staff to realize that Michael Schofield didn't deserve to play on the gridiron.  There is no doubt he is the worst starting offensive lineman in the NFL.  Finally, after a season long of terrible performances, his time at right tackle appears to be over. It is hard to imagine he couldn't give a better effort than Schofield has.

    There is a sign that reads, "We issue everything but guts" within Denver's operating facility and it's evident that Schofield lacks the intestinal fortitude to play in the NFL.  Perhaps former Broncos offensive lineman Mark Schlereth said it best: Certainly, one of the top priorities for the Broncos this off-season is doing whatever is necessary to ensure Schofield never steps on the field in a meaningful role ever again.


  • Denver's defense continued to show why they were the best in the league all season long, especially in the first half. If it wasn't for their tenacious and dominating play today, the Broncos may have not beat the Chargers. They only allowed 6 points and 93 total yards in the first 30 minutes, despite all the giveaways by the offense. They had a few gaffes in the second half, but still played a great game overall and registered three sacks and held the Chargers passing offense under 220 total yards.
  • Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson were impact performers on the Broncos defensive line, making several big plays in pursuit of Philip Rivers and formed a formidable duo against the run.  It all starts up front and their quality play in the trenches is one of the key reasons to the success of Wade Phillips' defense this season. Hopefully the Broncos will be able to retain both of them this off-season.
  • An unsung player for Denver has been second-year corner Bradley Roby, who had several impact plays against the pass and helped turn the tide on numerous third downs. Roby has improved tremendously over his rookie year, especially in regard to his technique and timing when breaking towards the ball.  Those improvements certainly merit praise and consideration for him being one of the best young corners in football.
  • Shilo Keo came up huge in the fourth quarter with an interception that helped swing the game in the Broncos favor. The turnover eventually led to the 23 yard touchdown run by Ronnie Hillman that sealed the game for Denver.
  • Inside linebacker Danny Trevathan had another impressive performance, registering 10 total tackles.  He finished the regular season with 110 total tackles, 6 passes defended, two interceptions and a defensive touchdown.

Hart's Quick Hits

  • Denver had a handful of injuries on defense, including Darian Stewart who was ruled out at halftime with concerns regarding his hamstring, as well as DeMarcus Ware who was listed as questionable after with a knee issue in the third quarter.
  • Inside linebacker Todd Davis saw extensive action today in place of Brandon Marshall, who had his reps limited as he continues to recover from a foot/ankle injury.
  • The Broncos offense could have put more points on the boards had it not been for five turnovers, but they moved the ball down the field with ease and accumulated 21 first downs over the course of the game to San Diego's 15.
  • Denver's defense held the Chargers offense to only 6 third down conversions on 18 attempts.
  • The Chargers won the battle in regard to time of possession by a count of 34:32 to 25:28.
  • Von Miller registered another sack this game, giving him 11 total on the season.

What were some of your big takeaways from today's game against the Chargers? Sound off in the comments section!