DENVER --It wasn't a matter of playing the blame game. But in the third quarter, with the Broncos' hopes of winning a fifth consecutive AFC West title teetering on the brink of extinction late Sunday afternoon, Head Coach Gary Kubiak felt he had to make a move, and make it now.
Five of their last eight drives had ended in giveaways. The murmur of discomfort over the 74,601 in attendance grew into a roar.
Starting quarterback Brock Osweiler wasn't at fault for most of the turnovers; only one could directly be attributed to him. But with a Hall of Famer standing on the sideline in uniform and deemed healthy enough to take part, Kubiak felt he had to call on Peyton Manning to see if he could stop the slide.
"The feel is that the team is looking around for that guy or that tremendous leadership type of stuff," Kubiak said. "That's what I felt."
What resulted wasn't Manning magic; but it was good, solid offense, built on a powerful ground game with just enough passing to keep the Chargers off-balance. And it was mistake-free. That was enough to halt the Broncos' descent in its tracks; the offense raced to 20 points in its next five series to seize what would be a 27-20 win.
"Coach Kubiak came over to me right after that first series in the third quarter and just told me, 'Hey, we're going to go with Peyton now,'" Osweiler said. "'Brock, you played well for us, but we're going to try to get a little spark.'
"And you know what? Peyton did."
That spark quickly exploded into a bonfire.
"The energy changed," Hillman said. "My mind was on the game; my mind wasn't on Peyton coming in. But I did hear the fans and everybody going crazy when he walked in. I just think that he changed the game fan-wise, but I think he came in and did a great job, an awesome job."
The spark was impossible to deny. Even though the numbers put up by Manning himself weren't extraordinary -- five completions in nine attempts for 69 yards -- the offense began to hum. With Tyler Polumbus replacing Michael Schofield at right tackle at the same time Manning entered, the Broncos began to throttle the Chargers on the ground.
"It seemed like we had instant momentum as soon as he came in," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. "It kind of seemed like he struck fear in the other defense; they were like, 'Oh, man, Peyton Manning's coming out here,' so they kind of changed the way they played defense."
Six of the eight plays on Manning's first drive under center were handoffs, capped by C.J. Anderson's 1-yard scoring run, and by the time Manning was done, he'd handed off the football on 17 of his 27 snaps prior to two game-ending kneeldowns.
Manning made his usual audibles at the line of scrimmage. More often than not, they worked. The offense averaged 7.52 yards per play with Manning directing it, drove to scores on four of five drives (not counting the kneeldowns) and, most importantly, protected the football.
"The audibles that he was making were all audibles that he should have made," said TE Virgil Green, "so he's very in-tune to the game and we just knew that things were going to be good, regardless of what was going to happen with Brock or Peyton."
"I felt very comfortable with [Manning]," Kubiak added. "For him to step up and say, 'Okay, I'm back; I'm ready to go; I'm with the football team; I will be available,' that's sending a tremendous message, not to just me, but to our whole team."
But Manning could not have sent that message without his work in practice.
This was an unusual week for the future Hall of Famer. A few months ago, no one could have conceived that he would go into Week 17 as the backup unless the Broncos had already locked their playoff placement. The notion that Manning would be a reserve in a game that had home-field advantage riding on it seemed hard to fathom.
But just as the week was unusual, so was the season. He dealt with pain in his foot that would eventually be diagnosed as a plantar fascia tear after he exacerbated it in Indianapolis on Nov. 8. He spent the next six weeks in various stages of rehabilitation and recovery before he could finally have a full practice workload this week.
Even then, he wasn't the same. Only extended rest or potential surgery will remedy the problem. But the rest he did get got him to the point where he could take part -- even though much of his work this week was spent running the scout team.
"He made us work all week," said Harris. "He was trying to come after us. He looked good in practice."
Not perfect; Harris said he intercepted him "a couple of times." But what Manning did was enough to convince not only his coaches, but his teammates, that he was ready.
"It was just good to get him out there working with us, man, just having that presence out there [and] in the locker room," Harris said. "You need that. You need that guy, and that's why he's here, that's why he's [No.] 18, so right now, he feels like he's ready to go."
Most importantly, he handled his duties with dignity and class.
"It just says who he is as a professional," Green said. "This whole week he's been doing some things for the scout team, and to be a guy that's been in the league 18 years and be able to be that focused and giving a look for the defense just shows a lot about who he is as a person."
"True professional. I mean, that's who Peyton is. He's a true pro," added running back C.J. Anderson. "I mean, I've only been around him three years, but in 18 seasons, he's seen the ups and downs.
"He went out there at practice every day. He still talked to Brock. He was still going through situations, even on the sidelines and in here [the locker room], he was going through situations. It's like all of us: When he got his opportunity, he made the most of it."
What comes next is unknown. But for Sunday -- and the days leading up to it -- Manning showed once again how to lead, how to play and how to be a pro.
"I mean, you're looking at one of the best to ever play, and he's going through the things that he's going through. It kind of makes you [consider] you're going through right now and it makes you go, 'Man, just shut up and keep grinding,'" Anderson said. "That's what he did."
And because he did, he was ready when Kubiak called his name Sunday, and he helped the Broncos get back on course to a win that ensures they will be at home for as long as they advance in the AFC playoffs.
Nobody yet knows what's next or who will start in the divisional-playoff game on Sunday. Manning's foot will have to be monitored to see how it responds to Sunday's work.
But as the postseason dawns, the Broncos have two quarterbacks their players trust. Two quarterbacks in whom they believe they can win. It took them both to get to 12-4 and the top seed in the AFC playoffs. It still might take both to accomplish all of their goals in the coming weeks.
"There are so many people involved with us being in the spot that we're in today," Kubiak said. "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."
And it says a lot about a team that made a bevy of mistakes, but adjusted and -- with the aid of its top-ranked defense -- didn't let five giveaways beat them.