DENVER** – After playing 18 years in the NFL, it's hard to imagine that Peyton Manning hasn't seen it all.
But Sunday afternoon at Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium, Manning was a part of something brand new. After sitting out six games with a foot injury, a finally healthy Manning was set to serve as the backup to quarterback Brock Osweiler in the final game of the regular season. The last time Manning served as a backup was as a freshman at Tennessee on Sept. 24, 1994.
Fast forward to halftime and despite a 7-6 lead over the San Diego Chargers, the Broncos had turned the ball over four times, with the defense successfully stalling the Chargers on three of the four ensuing drives for a grand total of three points resulting from the giveaways.
Denver returned in the second half unable to find a spark on offense and a second fumble, Head Coach Gary Kubiak turned to his bench.
Manning entered the game to a standing ovation in the third quarter to helm the offense, coming off the bench for the first time in his career.
"I've just never been through anything like that before," Manning said. "I've never missed one game and played the next week or missed two games. I've played every single game that I've been in football, except for [a neck injury] four years ago. So I don't really know what can prepare you for something like this.
"It felt like I hadn't played in a little bit. You get out there, but you kind of want to have a tight throw versus press coverage. You kind of want to get whacked. That happened for sure; I got hit hard. So you like to have some of those things happen to kind of get you back in the feel of things."
Osweiler went 14-of-22 passing for 232 yards, two interceptions and one touchdown, a 72-yard catch-and-run from wide receiver Demaryius Thomas.
The Broncos clinched the AFC West and the No. 1 seed in the conference. Here are the top shots of the 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. Brock, you played well for us, but we're going to try to get a little spark,'" Osweiler said. "And you know what? Peyton did. […] Coach always preaches it takes all 46 guys on gameday and today that truly was the case. We won the AFC West and I couldn't be any happier."
Manning's spark helped lead the Broncos over the Chargers in the second half, with much of their success coming on the ground. Running backs Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson both found the end zone while kicker Brandon McManus split the uprights twice. On the day, Manning went five-of-nine passing for 69 yards, while aiding the Broncos to their fifth-consecutive AFC West title and the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
Now with two weeks until their next game, Manning and Osweiler say they're both unsure of what either of their futures hold. Manning says he wants to see how his foot feels after playing it's first game since injury.
"There were a lot of ups and downs," Osweiler said. "But we overcame a lot of adversity as well along the way and it just shows that I truly believe that this team, the greatest aspect about us, is that we are a team. I think that's what makes this football team and that's what will allow us a chance at a run in these playoffs."