In all the euphoria that encapsulates the 2015 season, it’s easy to forget how very different that year could have gone for the Broncos.
By Week 17, the Broncos’ final regular season game was proving to be crucial as the 11-4 Broncos needed a win to be in the running for home-field advantage and ensure that assumed rematches with the Steelers and Patriots were going to be in Denver.
But aside from the Broncos’ curb-stomping of the Packers in Week 8, none of the previous 11 wins had felt assured until the clock ran out, and all of the losses felt way too possible again.
Brock Osweiler was the leading the charge, having taken over for Peyton Manning midway through the Week 10 home game against the Chiefs. Manning had just thrown his fourth interception to start the third quarter, a mere two hours after sealing his NFL record for most passing yards at 71,838, and head coach Gary Kubiak could not keep The Sheriff on the field any longer.
For the team’s sake as well as Manning’s.
We would learn later that our future Hall-of-Famer had an injured plantar fasciitis, requiring intensive physical therapy over the next six games.
But only in hindsight is it easy to look back at that game and not be heartsick at watching No. 18 get benched for the first time in his career.
I was at that game - guests of T.J. Ward’s family, no less - and seeing Manning on the bench while Osweiler was trying to win the game and his right to starter had me conflicted.
But an energized offense under Osweiler scored two more touchdowns, and while the deficit was too big to overcome, No. 17 made a case that Broncos Country shouldn’t fear for the season’s demise.
Manning cheered from the sideline (and even the training room when the temperature on the field was deemed too cold for his rehabilitating foot) as his backup racked up three wins in a row, including a crazy awesome overtime victory against the Patriots, while also winning over many a fan in Broncos Country.
But a poor offensive showing against the Raiders in Week 14 and an unproductive offense again in the second half against the Steelers to blow their lead and chance for a win in Week 15 had fans cooling a bit on Oz.
Denver’s offense struggled again the next week against the Bengals, but thanks to a defense led by Demarcus Ware, Von Miller and the No Fly Zone, Denver stayed in the game and pulled out a 20-17 overtime win.
Thus, the stage was set for the Week 17 showdown at home with the Chargers who were undoubtedly not going to let Osweiler get the best of them again. Now they had tape.
It was the first time Manning was even “active” since his benching/injury, and fans only needed the excuse of five turnovers from the Broncos offense to welcome him back with open arms.
On the second play of the game, Osweiler tossed a short pass to Demaryius Thomas who ran it 72 yards to the house, giving the Broncos early momentum.
But a sustained drive for a field goal from the Chargers put a stop to the Broncos early mojo - and as Kyle Montgomery wrote for MHR that week, it became “a turnover fest from there.”
Turnover 1 on Sanders (fumble)— MileHighReport (@MileHighReport) January 3, 2016
Turnover 2 on Norwood (off hands)
Turnover 3 on Osweiler (sack)
Turnover 4 on Schofield (bad at football)
Denver’s defense responded big on the first three turnovers, forcing Chargers to punt and helping Denver hold on to its fragile 7-3 lead.
Broncos would add a fourth turnover before the half for good measure, but it was the fifth turnover midway into the third quarter where Kubiak had seen enough.
To a roaring crowd and mostly off the legs of C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman, Manning led an eight-play, 80-yard drive for an Anderson TD, putting Denver up 14-13.
That was some of the loudest cheering I've ever heard on TV, when Peyton Manning came onto the field. Pretty infectious.— MileHighReport (@MileHighReport) January 3, 2016
Philip Rivers responded with an 80-yard wide-open touchdown play to Tyrell Williams, moving the Chargers into the lead.
But a pair of field goals by McManus on the next two drives pulled Denver into a tie game late in the fourth quarter.
The Broncos needed another spark and this time they found it from Shiloh Keo who picked off Rivers and ran it back 22 yards to put Manning & Co. on the Chargers’ own 23-yard line. On the first handoff, Hillman found the end zone and put the Broncos up 27-20.
Then the Broncos’ defense did what it did best all season - closed the game on a big play. This time by forcing an incomplete from Rivers on fourth down.
And Manning did what he did best all season - got just enough.
In the remaining minute-and-a-half, on 3rd-and-7, Manning handed off to Anderson for the one first down Denver needed to protect the lead and seal the victory.
The final regular season ‘W.’
AFC West champs.
No. 1 seed.
And the rest is histo...
Nah...there were still too many highlights to say that yet.