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Bold quarterback change lifts Broncos to victory over Chargers and No. 1 AFC seed

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Earlier this week Gary Kubiak said this is Brock Osweiler's team, but midway through the third quarter the coach needed his five-time NFL MVP backup quarterback to get it back. Fortunately for all involved, it worked.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in his 18-year NFL career, Peyton Manning learned what it was like to be the backup.

For the first time in his seven weeks of starting in the NFL, Brock Osweiler learned what it's like to get benched.

And it was a little different for both.

It takes the entire team to win and I think we showed that today. As long as this team is winning games, shoot, I don't care who's playing quarterback.   -Brock Osweiler

But as the regular season came to an end, and the Broncos survived a rallying Chargers team, it was obvious both players were instrumental in the Broncos finishing 12-4 on the way to the No. 1 seed for the playoffs.

"Football is the ultimate team sport. It takes the entire team to win and I think we showed that today," said Osweiler, who threw for 232 yards, one TD and two INTs. "As long as this football team is winning games, shoot I don't care who's playing quarterback."

As the first quarterback to play yesterday, Osweiler and the offense looked impressive, opening up with a huge touchdown play Demaryius Thomas that seemed to say, "Watch us score 50 points before halftime."

But Broncos clearly felt pity on their AFC West rival and instead chose to give the ball back.

Repeatedly.

Without scoring in between.

"The turnovers were very disappointing," Osweiler said after the game. "To go out there and have that many turnovers in the first half, I don't care who's fault it was, I'm always going to point the finger at myself. I can always play better, I can put us in a better situation to protect that football."

Thankfully, the defense kept the game close, but the Broncos' 7-6 lead was a clear offensive failure against a battered 4-11 San Diego Chargers team. Coach Gary Kubiak told the sideline reporter after the half that his message to his QB was "to take control of the team and earn your job."

That message was to the starter. The execution was left to the backup - perhaps the most decorated backup in the history of the NFL, that is.

"The team is looking around for that guy or that tremendous leadership type of stuff. That's what I felt. I know Peyton...I knew he was ready to go," Kubiak said, making a point to add that Osweiler didn't do anything wrong. "Just my gut told me to turn it over to [Manning] and let him lead the football team. Just very proud of him. He's worked really hard to stay there for us and it couldn't have been a bigger day to be there for us."

Although the deputy has been leading the Broncos through some very tough wins while tallying a 4-2 record the past six games, the Sheriff still had a few lessons to teach. Namely, how to read a defense and throw it off.

Peyton Manning entered the game midway through the third quarter to a thundering ovation. It was just eight weeks ago that he exited midway through the third to raucous boos.

"These fans were great," Manning said of the Mile High crowd yesterday. "They were cheering loud, but I'm pretty sure everybody was in their same seats when they were booing my butt off against Kansas City back about six weeks ago. I understand how this works."

As does Osweiler. It doesn't take 18 years as a starter to understand momentum.

"As a competitor, you want to play and you want to give your team a chance to be successful," Osweiler said about the change to Manning, adding there are "no hard feelings" over it. "I completely understand what Coach Kubiak was trying to do. He was trying to generate a spark for this football team so we could secure that No. 1 seed and we could win the AFC West title. All I care about is this football team winning games and today we did, so I couldn't be happier."

It was a risky coaching move since Manning had mainly been practicing on his own or with the scout team the past two weeks. For the first time in his life, No. 18 found out what it's like to "be called up" in the middle of a game after few first-team reps.

"You don't get many reps - at least when I've been the starter you haven't," Manning said of the backup QB role. "I got a good taste of that this week. You study and prepare and you kind of go through the calls. It's been such a crazy year. ...It's been a different year. I was glad to be able to contribute in some way today."

The contribution was less in the statistics - though they were not insignificant as the quarterback was 5 for 9 for 69 yards with zero (zero!) interceptions - and more in the confidence shift of the team.

"[Manning] told everyone to calm down," noted Demaryius Thomas - who broke Rod Smith's franchise record of 31 career touchdown receptions with his big yards-after-catch TD to start the game. "He came in and was the leader that he is. Everybody did their job, we didn't turn the ball over, we didn't get many penalties and the main thing was calming down, going down and putting some points on the board."

The Broncos did that with eight plays in 80 yards, mostly on the ground. The drive ended with a C.J. Anderson touchdown (x3 as the first two attempts were ruled short of the goal line) to put the Broncos up 14-13.

Anderson thought the difference from the first half was energy. And if Manning was behind some of that, so be it.

It wasn't Brock's fault we were losing, but man, when those fans went wild, I knew nothing was going to stop us.   -Antonio Freeman to the Denver Post

"Obviously, energy. Energy from the fans. We just executed and [Manning] executed," said Anderson, who contribute 95 of the Broncos' whopping 210 yards on the ground plus a TD. "Brock wasn't the reason we were put in a bad position. It was on us. Kub made the change and, like we said before, it doesn't matter who lines up under center. We just want to win."

Anderson's counterpart to the outside, Ronnie Hillman, wasn't ready to say the quarterback provided the spark, rather that guys just stepped up and started playing better.

"[Manning] came in, and we scored and we drove down the field and did some good things," said Hillman, who had 115 yards along with one touchdown. "I felt like he definitely put us in a good position, but it's hard to say that he energized us, it's just more of we started to execute."

Perhaps it was just execution, but the energized crowd clearly lifted the team, including the defense, which had its hands full with an on-fire Philips Rivers and Chargers team with nothing to lose.

Defensive end Antonio Smith told the Denver Post the fans going crazy once Manning came into the game made a huge difference.

"The cheers, the energy surge, it changed the whole atmosphere," Smith said. "It wasn't Brock's fault we were losing. But man, when those fans went wild, I knew nothing was going to stop us."

Von Miller certainly felt that way.

"It was great. Peyton - he's been working hard to get back. He's been rehabbing trying to get back. It's great," the outside linebacker said. "Whenever a guy overcomes injury like that to get back, it's great."

Aqib Talib thought the move changed everything - from the offensive line to the running game to the defense.

"It lifted the whole stadium. It lifted the o-line. The o-line got with it and we opened up some holes and got to running that ball," Talib said. "I don't know if it was just his presence, but it was just a little energy that came through the building."

The issues with the offensive line were also helped by another key substitution - Tyler Polumbus for Michael Schofield at right tackle.

"Yeah, we struggled up front," Kubiak admitted, adding that despite 500 yards of offense, the line was collapsing, so the coach asked Clancy Barone if Polumbus would be good to go. "He went in and played well."

Manning's quick release of the ball didn't hurt either.

"Peyton got rid of that ball pretty quick, too. He took some shots," Kubiak said. "I think we could have protected better, but when you move the ball like we did, somebody is doing something right."

How this quarterback change plays out over the next two weeks is anyone's guess, and Manning of all people knows his second-half success Sunday doesn't necessarily win him back the starting job.

"Brock was making good throws and then the ball tips up or you get hit, but nobody wants to hear about that. I think the interception has a story. Nobody wants to hear it. There were some tipped balls and bad breaks," Manning said, noting that those quirky things didn't happen in the second half. "Maybe the football gods smiled upon us a little more in the second half than the first half."

It's been such a crazy year. A strange first half...I've been there. There were some tipped balls and bad breaks. Maybe the football gods smiled upon us more in the second half.   -Peyton Manning

And if anyone was taking the long view and asking for patience with Osweiler, it was the guy who knows better than anyone how many things have to go right to get a successful play off.  Just one little thing going wrong - whether it's a fluke or a player's mistake - can mean a busted play, an incomplete, an interception.

"It's been such a crazy year. A strange first half, tipped balls. I've been there; I've been there," Manning said of turnovers. "You kind of say, ‘I'm not sure what I could do better,' and then you're fumbling."

So, is there a quarterback controversy in Denver? To the extent there is no clear starter for next week, yes.

But to the point the quarterbacks and coaches are thinking selfishly about their roles? No.

As we have seen all season, the Broncos' two field generals continue to handle the unique situation with incredible respect for the other and especially the team.

"I think that the best thing that this team has done was kind of take it one week at a time. We haven't really looked past and we haven't looked back, either," Manning noted. "We'll enjoy this one tonight and then the bye week will come and give the guys a chance to get healthy. I think that's important."

It certainly has been important to Kubiak who has been deflecting quarterback controversy questions for nearly two months while Manning battled back from a torn plantar fascia. Calling Manning the "ultimate professional," the coach noted that the way Manning stayed positive about the situation and pledged to do whatever he could for the team was a testament to his character.

"It's been a little weird here for me, too. I'm going to tell you that," Kubiak said. "There are so many people involved with us being in the spot that we're in today. For Manning to be there, ultimately, today for this football team in the second half and find a way to get us over the hump says everything about the man's character, about what he is, what he stood for and what he continues to stand for."

For Manning to be there for this football team in the second half and find a way to get us over the hump says everything about the man's character.  -Gary Kubiak

As for going forward, Kubiak is going to wait until later in the week after sitting down with both quarterbacks. In the meantime, he doesn't see this situation as continued "uncertainty" at the position.

"I don't think that we've had uncertainty. I disagree with that," Kubiak said. "Peyton went through some physical times and we had to turn to a young kid who, as he played, continued to play better. All of the sudden, we've reached a big point in this season where we needed a boost and here we are. I just think that we continue to find a way, or trying to find a way as an organization and a football team to be successful."

Anderson also doesn't see this as a quarterback controversy for the team, but possibly for the media.

"We've handled it all season. We handled it the last eight weeks, six weeks of the season when Peyton was hurt," the running back said. "I think we're going to handle it pretty well. How do you all handle it, that's the real question."

Emmanuel Sanders doesn't worry about who is under center because no matter who it is, that guy is only one of 11 trying to make plays on the field.

"I don't call the shots. My job is to line up and catch passes," Sander said. "You guys try to make it about one guy. It's never about one guy. It's about the team. No man is bigger than the team. We've got one goal and one goal only, and that's to bring a Super Bowl to the city of Denver. Everybody is in, no matter who the QB is."