They started looking very much like the team they were supposed to be.
The Broncos ran the ball effectively in a 17-15 road win over the Chicago Bears on Sunday. The new quarterback, Brock Osweiler, performed efficiently. Denver basically resembled a far more balanced football team -- instead of one learning how to co-exist with a future first-ballot Hall of Famer.
The Broncos would never say this openly, of course. This entire year has revolved around whether they could meld Manning's love of a wide-open offense with a more conservative attack guided by first-year head coach Gary Kubiak. Denver had shown glimpses of striking a balance between those two dynamics before a torn plantar fascia in Manning's left foot sidelined him for this contest. The presence of Osweiler merely revealed what it really takes for this offense to run in a much smoother fashion.
This isn't so much a knock on Manning as it is a reality of the Broncos' current state at the quarterback position. They don't need an aging superstar anymore. They need a game manager who does exactly what Osweiler did.
"One thing we really stressed all week long was ball security, being able to come out of this game with no turnovers," Osweiler said after completing 20 of 27 passes for 250 yards and two touchdowns. "To be able to play the entire 60 minutes and have the game finish with a zero in that turnover column, to meet one of your team's goals for the week, it was huge for the offense."
It was huge because GM John Elway built these Broncos for these types of games. He fired head coach John Fox in the offseason because he thought Kubiak had a better feel for handling a star quarterback so late in his career. Elway won two Super Bowls before retiring with a dominant run game, a solid defense and a willingness to do less under center. He was hoping to provide Manning with the same assets to lead the Broncos to another Lombardi Trophy.
That strategy sounded nice in theory. The execution hasn't been so stellar. The Broncos have fielded a great defense, but their running game ranked 29th in the league coming into this contest. Manning had been just as disappointing -- his 17 interceptions were the highest total in the league. Denver relished the moments when Manning delivered in the clutch during a season-opening, seven-game win streak -- as he did in a comeback win over Kansas City in Week 2 -- but they also were winning in spite of him at times.
Osweiler's presence should assuage some of those concerns. Even though he's bound to go through the same growing pains that haunt any young starter, he's learned some things in four seasons in Denver. He clearly felt prepared and didn't seem rattled. He also capitalized on Kubiak's desire to pound the ball (Denver ran for 170 yards on 36 attempts) and his defense's ability to make critical plays, including a fourth-quarter fumble recovery by defensive end Malik Jackson and a stop on a potential game-tying two-point conversion.
"What we needed to do was go play clean football as a team," Kubiak said. "We've had many turnovers ... hurting ourselves, and the message this week was 'Let's protect the football and play.' We'll play great defense. We're consistent in what we're doing there, and let's not hurt ourselves as a team. I think that's what we ultimately did."
"[Osweiler] was efficient," added Broncos running back C.J. Anderson. "He's a leader. Nothing really changed. We knew Brock had it in him. He's just playing behind a Hall of Famer. It's like when the Packers did the same thing to A-Rod. [Green Bay Pro Bowl quarterback Aaron Rodgers spent three years sitting behind Brett Favre before becoming a starter.] He went out there and did his job today."
It's certainly far too early to start thinking that Osweiler can give the Broncos what Rodgers has given Green Bay. It's more realistic to see the larger point Anderson was making -- that Osweiler has strengths that we couldn't see before. For one, he's more mobile than Manning, which is a big requirement in Kubiak's West Coast offense. Osweiler also was more willing to get his tight ends involved than Manning has been in recent weeks.
Prior to Sunday, Vernon Davis -- a former Pro Bowl tight end whom Denver acquired in a trade with the 49ers at the outset of November -- had just two receptions in two games with the Broncos. He led the team with six catches (for 68 yards) against the Bears. Another tight end, Owen Daniels, added four receptions of his own for 69 yards. The Broncos didn't utilize Pro Bowl wide receiver Demaryius Thomas as they usually do, but he did produce a 48-yard touchdown on one of his three receptions.
This is the way it likely will look for the Broncos in the coming weeks. They'll have to play to Osweiler's strengths while recognizing the importance of managing his limitations. The days of Denver fielding a prolific, record-breaking unit passed long ago. This team is now in complete survival mode, and it's been that way ever since Manning's play declined precipitously.
The most encouraging aspect of Osweiler's first start was his own maturity. He understood that this was a huge moment -- both because of his chance to play and the man he was replacing -- but he kept it in perspective.
"One thing that I have learned in my three and a half years of watching Peyton and this football team is that you need to close out that outside noise," Osweiler said. "At the end of the day, it's a football game. When you can focus on the task at hand -- one play at a time, one drive at a time, one game at time -- none of that [other stuff] is going to dictate what happens in the game."
Osweiler felt so comfortable in his new role that he even addressed the team when Denver arrived in Chicago on Saturday night. He wouldn't go into specifics, although he did admit that he stressed the importance of having "a mentality that I wanted us to play with today." It's a safe bet that Osweiler's mentality involved many of the things Denver had done successfully before this point. He clearly knew he didn't have to be Superman for his team to escape with a victory.
This was ultimately a critical test for both him and the Broncos, proving they have plenty of steam left for a championship run. To win a game on the road under adverse circumstances -- with a backup quarterback, without a star receiver and against a former head coach -- means a statement was sent to the rest of the NFL.
After all, the question before this game was: Could Denver win without Manning on the field? The one that came out of it is just as intriguing: Are the Broncos actually better off without him?