DENVER —** It wasn't too long ago that safety Shiloh Keo must have felt like an outsider in the Broncos' locker room. Added on Dec. 9 in the middle of preparation for the Raiders, the four-year veteran was a new guy put in a tough spot as injuries began mounting in earnest for the safety corps.
Then, during the Week 14 game against Oakland, Keo made a drastic error in coverage with the Raiders in the red zone after recovering a muffed punt. Lining up three wide receivers to the left, the Raiders seemed to be setting up a screen to wide receiver Amari Cooper. Keo read the screen the whole way, but his man, tight end Mychal Rivera, faked his block and instead ran a seam route into the open space behind Keo and caught the go-ahead touchdown pass.
Giving up a game-winning touchdown was definitely not the way he saw himself starting his time with the Broncos, and since then Keo has been looking to build trust with the coaching staff and his teammates.
He got that opportunity Sunday with the Broncos chasing a fifth straight AFC West title and the top seed in the conference heading into the playoffs. With the game tied at 20, the Chargers had stalled Denver's offense and forced a punt late in the fourth quarter. San Diego could take control with a quick touchdown or a long drive to eat up the clock before scoring the go-ahead points.
On third-and-7 after two rushes, the Broncos knew they had quarterback Philip Rivers in an obvious passing down and dropped seven defenders into coverage. Even without blitzing, the Broncos collapsed the pocket around Rivers, trapping him in a confined space. Under heavy duress, Rivers threw to rookie receiver Tyrell Williams down the left seam.
But Williams was covered by inside linebacker Danny Trevathan and safety T.J. Ward underneath. Keo was playing deep, six yards behind Williams. The pass threaded the needle it needed to for it to be a completion, but it was a bit high, and Williams couldn't corral it as he twisted in midair. The tipped ball fell into Keo's grasp, and with a 22-yard return, he gave the Broncos offense a short field to work with.
"I was just in the back of the field, just trying to keep everything in front of me and there was some good pressure," Keo said. "It made him float the ball and I just knew that the tight end wasn't going to be able to come down with it. It was too high, so I just wanted to capitalize and make sure I catch it first. It was just exciting. As soon as I had that ball in my hands, I was pumped. I was psyched. I guess I should have focused on my return skills, because I feel like I could have done a little better, but it was just exciting, an awesome opportunity."
A play later, the Broncos scored on a 23-yard run from running back Ronnie Hillman, and Keo's redemptive moment was complete.
"It definitely feels good when you can bounce back and make a big-time play that changes the outcome of the game," Keo said. "But it's just doing my job. I need to go back; there was another play that I gave up back there and I need to go back and fix and get ready, because I don't know when my next opportunity is going to be and I have to be ready for that. I need to gain the trust of the coaches and my teammates to earn that position out there on the field. It's just another play and I need to take it to the next game."
With safety Darian Stewart suffering a hamstring injury that kept him out after the first quarter Sunday, Keo's role increased, and he rose to the challenge, as Head Coach Gary Kubiak said after the game.
Another game, another thrilling finish for the Broncos -- but this time, the Broncos clinched an AFC West title and the top seed in the AFC for the postseason.
"We've had some issues on the back end. We lost Stew [Stewart] today, and this kid keeps battling," Kubiak said. "I'm just proud of him. He's a great example of if you think you can play, hang in there and keep battling, and there's always an opportunity. He took advantage of his today."
It wasn't just Kubiak who was proud of Keo's triumphant moment, either. After talking of how he wants to earn the trust of his teammates, Keo certainly seems to have gotten to that point.
"It was great. Shiloh came up big. I'm just happy for my guys. It's another great win for us. I'm excited for my guys," outside linebacker Von Miller said. "I just feel great for Shiloh. It was a huge play right when we needed it."
Now Keo is just looking to see how he can continue his momentum into the playoffs.
"I feel like my progress has been good. [I'm] getting a lot of reps, getting a lot of opportunities, both at practice and during the games," Keo said. "I just feel like I'm starting to get back in my groove, and I'm just excited for the opportunity. […] I'm just excited for what's next."
Making a change at right tackle
At the same time that the Broncos made a change at quarterback to put in Peyton Manning, the coaches made another adjustment at the same time, substituting in veteran offensive lineman Tyler Polumbus at right tackle for rookie Michael Schofield.
Kubiak attributed the change to some struggles on the line, and got input from Offensive Line Coach Clancy Barone about making the switch.
"We struggled up front," Kubiak said. "We had  yards of offense. It's hard to say you struggled up front, but for some reason, we got to a situation there late in the second quarter and we really had a hard time with them, so we took Michael out.
"It goes back to like I said, we've played everybody this year. Tyler went in. I turned to Clancy, I said, 'You okay?' He said, 'Yeah, give him a chance,' and he went in and played well. It's just another example of us—we've got some young guys up front."
After Manning and Polumbus entered the game in the third quarter, the Broncos averaged 7.77 yards per play, and most importantly, didn't turn the ball over.
"In general, I just thought we stopped hurting ourselves," left tackle Ryan Harris said. "We were running the ball and passing the ball, and not hurting ourselves, and we really executed down the stretch."
On Monday, Kubiak wouldn't commit to naming a single starter with two weeks before their next game, but instead he returned to how he felt about the team needing everyone they had to win games. "I think I'll go back to the fact that I think everybody is going to play," Kubiak said. "We were in a situation yesterday [where] we're that's what Clancy does for a living: He coaches those guys, and he felt like putting Tyler in was a good move for us as a football team. We know Michael's a young player; we've got three very young players who are playing up front for us, and Tyler responded and played well and, so, I think it'll continue to take all of us. How do we go about that? We'll make a decision here over the next couple weeks."