The entire AFC playoff picture tilted with 8:18 left in the third quarter of a game that was really only about seeding. But that was the moment when Peyton Manning shed the coat he was wearing and took his job back, the job that it seemed he had lost for good when he was benched in mid-November and then stayed out with a foot injury. The Patriots had lost earlier on Sunday, opening the door for Denver to seize home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, and Gary Kubiak, who only three days prior declared that Brock Osweiler was the Broncos' starting quarterback, didn't have a lot of time to waste after his team committed five turnovers and fell behind the Chargers.
It was the most unlikely, surreal scenario in the entire NFL. Manning's day had begun with an extra early warmup on the field -- he hadn't warmed up as an NFL backup prior to Sunday -- before he ceded the space to Osweiler. It had seemed almost completely impossible that the Broncos would revert to Manning, despite his prodigious résumé. Even when he had started in the first half of the season, his play had deteriorated, perhaps because he was more injured then than anybody knew or perhaps just because age and the rigors of the game were eroding his skills. He had thrown 17 interceptions and nine touchdowns in nine games. The career post-mortems were being written, the idea that one of the game's all-time greats would never take the field again setting in. The Broncosbeat the Patriotsand Bengals, both in overtime, with Osweiler, and those teams could come up on their dance card in the postseason. It seemed that Denver had fully moved on from Manning.
But even as Manning receded further and further from the field, the offense under Osweiler had been sputtering, even through the wins. There was a stretch where they couldn't score touchdowns in the second half. In Week 16, they went to a Manning-esque no-huddle offense to get a spark in the second half. When that worked, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Osweiler would lead the Broncos through the playoffs.
This was the final Sunday of a regular season marked by quarterback calamities, and it seemed fitting that the most discussed quarterback situation in the league was instrumental in shaping the postseason, too.
Manning had practiced as a backup this past week -- the first time he was active as a backup since he was a freshman for the Tennessee Volunteers -- and also spent some time denying a report linking him to HGH use in pro sports, a story that clearly infuriated him. And on Sunday, he was on the sideline, talking to Osweiler occasionally as those turnovers added up. In his prime, before Manning had the neck injury that forced him to adjust how he cared for his body, he was loath to give up even one practice snap, and on the rare occasions when he was pulled from a game to rest -- when the Colts had already wrapped up their playoff position, for instance -- he was angry. But on Sunday, there he was, the most famous backup in football history, watching the tipped balls and bad breaks go against Osweiler, watching the offense grind to a standstill again, in the last chance the Broncos had to get it on track before the playoffs begin. After the fifth turnover, early in the third quarter, Osweiler pulled on a cap and Manning began his warmup throws. The cameras found him.
"My gut told me to turn it over to Peyton," Kubiak explained.
Kubiak will probably have to spend some more time explaining this decision and the even bigger one that looms ahead about who will start the playoff games.
But that is for the coming days. Sunday was about Manning, as so many Sundays, good and bad, have been since 1998.
Once Manning took the field, to a huge roar in Denver, the storybook was not assured. There was nobody watching who could forget that Manning might have earned his benching even if his foot hadn't been injured. But he did what Kubiak hoped he would: He brought a spark and energy to the offense that had been absent. He handed the ball off and made some passes. He played from the pistol and from under center.
He audibled to the run away from a blitz that got the Broncos to the 1-yard line -- a touchdown followed -- on his first drive back. He got the Chargers to jump with a hard count. With nearly two full months of rest, his arm looked better than it had at any point this season. He was the Manning the Broncos had hoped to have all season, the one they thought was gone forever. And so the Broncos beat the Chargers 27-20to seize home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, a not insignificant advantage considering how formidable the Patriots historically have been in Foxborough. The last time the Broncos were the top overall seed, in 2013, they reached the Super Bowl. For most of this season, it looked as if that was the last chance Manning had to start a Super Bowl.
Now, Kubiak faces an excruciating decision about who starts in the divisional-round game, one that will consume all the oxygen surrounding the NFL playoffs for the next two weeks. As stunning as Manning's return to the field Sunday was, though, it would be just as mind-boggling if he is benched again for the divisional round. After the game was over, Manning joked that now he knew what all of his backups had gone through, never being able to get any practice repetitions with the starting offense. On Sunday night, it seemed unlikely that Manning will have that feeling again as the playoffs begin in Denver.
They will play a divisional-round game in New England, too, after the Patriots showed a shocking vulnerability at protecting their all-time great, and the final AFC playoff spot was seized by a team (Pittsburgh) that lost its quarterback to injury for a few games during the season but got help from a team whose quarterback turned from FitzMagic to FitzTragic with a playoff spot on the line.
The Patriots tried to straddle the line between getting their battered team healthy and locking up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Instead, the Patriots lost to the Dolphins -- a team already well into the throes of an organizational makeover -- got Brady hit low and his ankle tweaked in the process (he hobbled away from his postgame news conference), and lost their grip on the security that Gillette Stadium provides them. The Broncos beat the Patriots in overtime during the regular season, in a game played without receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. Those two are expected to be ready for the playoffs -- that was the entire point of holding them out of the last two games of the regular season, both losses -- but that loss to the Broncosstarted the 2-4 skid with which the Patriots concluded the regular season. The offense has been out of sync -- hence, kicking off in overtime to the Jets -- and the underrated defense wilted against the Dolphins' Ryan Tannehill. A potential rematch with the Broncos in Denver looks far more foreboding for the defending Super Bowl champions than having it in Foxborough.
"We don't really have any control over that," Belichick said of home-field advantage. "Wherever it is, it is. Wherever we play, we play."
The Jets won't play at all. Needing only to win to get in, the offense that had propelled them through the final month of the season imploded. The moments that decided the AFC's final playoff spot happened nearly simultaneously -- Ryan Fitzpatrickwas intercepted in the end zone by Buffalo's Leodis McKelvin on his worst pass in six weeks at nearly the same time that the Steelers fell on a loose ball coughed up by Browns QB Austin Davis. Fitzpatrick has never been to the playoffs in his 11 seasons -- neither has his receiver Brandon Marshall, who at 31 has revived his career in New York -- and now the Jets have missed out on the postseason for the fifth straight season despite a surprisingly rapid turnaround in Todd Bowles' first season. Gang Green melted down, as Fitzpatrick threw three interceptions in the fourth quarter, each one when the Jets had a chance to take the lead. That left the Steelers only to dispatch the Browns, whose starting quarterback Johnny Manzielwas out with a concussion and who may or may not have spent Saturday night in Las Vegas and whose owner had reportedly already decided to fire coach Mike Pettine, but had failed to tell Pettine.
The Steelerswon the game with ease 28-12, and will play in Cincinnati next week. The teams split their regular-season series, with the Bengalslosing at home Dec. 13 after backup QB AJ McCarron relieved an injured Andy Dalton. It is unclear if Dalton will be ready for the first-round game after breaking his right thumb during that loss, imperiling a season the Bengals began 8-0 and giving even greater chances to the Steelers, who have one of the game's most explosive offenses and who beat the AFC's third and first seeds in consecutive weeks of the regular season and also beat the NFC's second seed.
The other conference, the NFC, did not provide as much drama Sunday -- all six teams were already in, with only seeding on the line -- but it might have the three best teams in the NFL. One-loss Carolina has home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and the Cardinals have the second seed and a bye week. The Seahawks, vying to go to their third straight Super Bowl, finished 10-6 and are a wild card, the one absolutely nobody wants to face, particularly after they went into Arizona and throttled the Cardinals 36-6.
The playoffs finally start on Saturday. There is no more time for even the best teams to sleepwalk.