DENVER -- In a twisting, turning type of ride the Denver Broncos have been on this season, Sunday’s 27-20 win over the San Diego Chargers may have been the wildest exclamation point.
The Broncos spent the week saying nothing had changed. Quarterback Brock Osweiler would be the starter as Peyton Manning’s foot continued to heal. But with eight minutes remaining in the third quarter Sunday, there was Manning trotting into the huddle. The crowd roared and Manning, who looked like he had already thrown the last pass of his Hall of Fame career, was back.
"It lifted the whole stadium, it lifted the O-line, the O-line got with it," Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib said. " ... I don’t know if it was just his presence, but it was just a little energy came through the building."
Yes, it was straight out of a fairy tale.
Manning helped lead four scoring drives -- two touchdowns, two field goals -- and the Broncos went from team that had committed five turnovers with a playoff bye on the line to a victory and the AFC’s No. 1 seed.
"Coach (Gary) Kubiak came over to me ... and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to go with Peyton now, Brock. You played well for us -- we’re going to try to get a little spark,’" Brock Osweiler said. "Peyton … he sparked the whole team."
In his first game action since being removed from a Nov. 15 contest against the Kansas City Chiefs, Manning threw the ball just nine times for 69 yards. He didn’t have a touchdown, didn’t throw an interception.
"Coach Kubiak said, ‘If we need you, can we put you in there?'" Manning said. "And I said, 'I haven’t played in six weeks, but I can go in and do something.'"
Manning was sacked once. He still looked, at times, like a quarterback who had missed six games, had countless hours of treatment, and will not be 100 percent healthy before the season ends. Asked if he thought he would start the Broncos’ first playoff game, Manning simply said: "I don’t know, we’ve got two weeks before we play again, we’ll see how I feel [Monday], we’ll see how my foot feels. I got a good welcome back to the football field -- somebody hit me hard and left a little message as he was getting back up."
Manning was steamrolled by Chargers defensive tackle Damion Square, the kind of hit that almost ended this little January fable as quickly as it began. Manning’s potential return beyond Sunday -- Kubiak said he likely would decide later in the week -- won’t repair the Broncos' issues in the offensive line or the fact they had 26 turnovers this season, which happens to be the highest total among playoff teams.
Yet now comes the really hard part, the one where the Broncos have to deal with the pressure of performing as a No. 1 seed. And that includes Manning.
Manning has to be honest about his left foot and his ability to play. In retrospect, Manning said he may have misjudged all of that on the chilly November day against the Chiefs when he was pulled from the lineup with 35 yards passing and four interceptions.
"It just affects guys differently. [Saints quarterback Drew] Brees had it and went out and threw for 400 yards," Manning said. "It wasn’t quite as kind to me. It just kind of hung around and hung around with me, and it’s kind of affected the way I felt, the way I was stepping."
As for Osweiler, he has to live with the fact he still has to be ready to go. The Broncos have yet to turn any of their three previous seasons -- 13, 13 and 12 wins -- into anything other than playoff disappointment because they couldn’t handle the biggest moments.
If Manning, as expected, is officially named the starter, it’s on a handle-with-care left foot. So, Osweiler, an unrestricted free agent at season’s end in a quarterback-starved league, has to live up to the words his body language didn’t always support Sunday night.
"As long as this football team wins games, that’s all I care about," Osweiler said. "And that’s the truth. … As long as this football team is winning games, shoot, I don’t care who’s playing quarterback."
Here they are, these Broncos -- a great, cliffhanging football adventure that still needs an ending. And how the quarterback situation is handled will have a lot to say about how it ends.