ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Often, when Denver Broncos coach Gary Kubiak steps in front of reporters, he simply says “Y’all go ahead."
As opening statements go, it’s short, simple and to the point. Much like when he was asked earlier this week if he had considered, at any point in the Broncos’ 23-16 win against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC divisional round, about replacing Peyton Manning at quarterback.
Kubiak’s initial response was simply, “No."
And as the Broncos move into the AFC Championship Game on Sunday against the New England Patriots, Manning is, and will be, the team’s quarterback for this postseason. The only thing that might change that? If Kubiak and the team’s coaching or medical staff believe Manning’s left foot injury has flared up and impacting his ability to protect himself and throw the ball.
The other Broncos are just fine with that.
“This is a team game and we want to do it for [No.] 18 as much as he wants to do it for us," wide receiver Bennie Fowler said.
Manning missed seven starts because of a tear in the plantar fascia near his left heel. He suffered the injury in the Broncos’ Nov. 8 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, and has told teammates and coaches his foot had bothered him far earlier. When he was removed from the Nov. 15 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs after throwing his fourth interception, he led the league in interceptions with 17.
Broncos backup quarterback Brock Osweiler was 5-2 in the starts Manning missed, with overtime wins against the Cincinnati Bengals and the Patriots in the mix. The Broncos would not be playing on their home field Sunday if not for Osweiler.
But the Broncos likely wouldn't have home-field advantage without Manning's efforts, either. He returned to the lineup in the third quarter of the regular-season finale after the Broncos’ fifth turnover against the San Diego Chargers. Manning attempted just nine passes the rest of the way, but led the Broncos on four scoring drives -- two touchdowns and two field goals -- to seal the win that assured the Broncos would play in Denver through the AFC title game.
Still, when the Broncos didn’t convert drives that started at the Steelers’ 30- and 31-yard lines, respectively, into more than field goals or when the Broncos punted three times in the opening half and turned the ball over on downs, the home crowd got more than a little restless.
That only picked up when the Broncos punted on their first two drives of the second half. But from Kubiak’s perspective, the Broncos let plays slip through their fingers on dropped passes. And there is also the matter of Osweiler, who has been limited with a right knee injury since the Chargers game and has also received treatment for left shoulder and left elbow injuries in recent weeks.
“We were struggling because we didn’t catch the ball," Kubiak said. “We would have had a really big first half. I think we had five or six drops. We still had 160 yards of ball movement, but there was 100 yards of plays out there that we left. We were fine. We just needed to keep plugging away."
The Broncos dropped six passes in the first half, seven for the game, and five of those likely would have resulted in at least first downs. Game video revealed if all seven passes had been caught, the Broncos likely would have had at least 80 additional yards of offense, with the potential for more if there had been any significant runs after the catch.
Eventually, the Broncos had three scoring drives in the second half, including their lone touchdown drive (13 plays, 70 yards) that followed cornerback Bradley Roby's forced fumble in the fourth quarter, as well as a four-play field goal drive in the closing minute after the Steelers failed to convert a fourth-down play.
“I thought he played amazing," running back C.J. Anderson said of Manning. "We had some drops. I thought he played great. He put us in some great plays, he saw blitzes coming. We kept him clean for most of the game, so if we can do that we always have a chance."
Kubiak said: "We talked about that at halftime. Even though we struggled a little bit in the third quarter, I think some of the plays we made toward the end -- especially the job that [Manning] did with us running the ball on that last drive, was tremendous. I felt good about our football team throughout the course of the game. I just think it was a tough, tough football game. We needed to hang in there and keep battling."