ENGLEWOOD, Colo. - Somehow, it seemed appropriate that the battered Denver Broncos used both quarterbacks to throw themselves across the finish line of the regular season and earn a first-round bye that they desperately needed.
Now, as their regular season concludes, there is one dominant question: Does Peyton Manning start or does Brock Osweiler continue on the first team after starting the last seven games of the regular season in Manning's stead?
Despite the presence of the league's top-ranked defense in most statistical metrics, the quarterback question continues to overshadow the Broncos, who took the AFC's top seed after overcoming a litany of self-inflicted wounds to defeat the Chargers 27-20 in Denver on Sunday. That win combined with the Patriots' stunning 20-10 loss at Miami gave the Broncos the AFC's top seed for the third time in the last four seasons.
Manning returned to practice last week, ran the scout team and showed enough to make himself a viable option when the Broncos trailed 13-7 in the third quarter and left coach Gary Kubiak looking for a spark.
"He made us work all week," said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. "He was trying to come after us. He looked good in practice."
And while he didn't look like the Manning of old, he didn't look like the Manning of Week 10, who was forced to the sideline with four interceptions, a 0.0 rating and an injured foot. The rest and rehabilitation had helped get him back to a level of effectiveness.
"It seemed like we had instant momentum as soon as he came in," Harris said. "It kind of seemed like he struck fear in the other defense; they were like, 'Oh, man, Peyton Manning's coming out here,' so they kind of changed the way they played defense."
And Manning reacted. Although he passed the football infrequently - just nine times in 29 snaps - he expertly audibled at the line of scrimmage, capitalizing off the Chargers' predilection to attack the passer.
"The audibles that he was making were all audibles that he should have made," said tight end Virgil Green. "So he's very in-tune to the game and we just knew that things were going to be good, regardless of what was going to happen with Brock or Peyton."
But what happens now? The Broncos marched to 20 points with Manning at quarterback. But he struggled with the deep ball, just as he did throughout most of the season before he finally succumbed to injury. He anticipated receivers' breaks to the outside, but his passes didn't have as much zip as Osweiler's.
Broncos coach Gary Kubiak plans to take his time with the decision. Osweiler wasn't responsible for four of the Broncos' five giveaways Sunday. But in a bottom-line business, is the future Hall of Famer the best bet after steering the Broncos back from the abyss of a wild-card date with the Texans?
No matter what decision Kubiak makes, he will have to factor in Manning's presence. When he entered Sunday's game, the tenor turned 180 degrees.
"The energy changed," said running back Ronnie Hillman said.
But if Manning starts in the playoffs, can he carry it forward? That will weigh on Kubiak's mind as he decides between youth and experience, and education and savvy.
REPORT CARD VS. CHARGERS
--PASSING OFFENSE: C minus. The Broncos racked up yardage - most of it coming with Brock Osweiler at quarterback against the Chargers' decimated defense. But the passing game was directly responsible for four of the Broncos' five giveaways thanks to an unblocked corner blitz, a failure to contain Melvin Ingram, a pass that bounced squarely off slot receiver Jordan Norwood's hands and a downfield fumble by Emmanuel Sanders.
--RUSHING OFFENSE: B-plus. C.J. Anderson's two fumbles in two games are a concern, but the fervor with which he and Ronnie Hillman ran behind the Broncos' line is not. Although the blockers continue to struggle in pass protection, their run blocking has improved to the point where the Broncos were eighth in rushing yardage per game and sixth in average per carry from Nov. 1 onward.
--PASS DEFENSE: B minus. A coverage breakdown led to an 80-yard touchdown that put the Chargers in front 20-17 in the fourth quarter, and while the Broncos hit Philip Rivers four times with three ending in sacks, they were unable to completely squelch a passing attack that lacked almost every one of its primary targets by the end of the game. Pressure did force a Rivers throw that was slightly high and ended up in the hands of reserve safety Shiloh Keo, whose return set up Ronnie Hillman's game-winning touchdown one play later.
--RUN DEFENSE: B minus. San Diego had a surprising amount of success on the ground, and although the Broncos held them to 3.8 yards per carry, the Chargers were steady enough to continue pounding and ran on 29 of 67 snaps Sunday. Although Denver's defensive line got good penetration, the Broncos missed Brandon Marshall, who was limited to three plays because of an ankle injury.
--SPECIAL TEAMS: B. Brandon McManus was perfect on placekicks for the first time since Week 12, and punter Britton Colquitt posted a 44.8-yard net average, one of his highest figures of the season. Jordan Norwood came close to breaking one of his punt returns for a long gain, but had to settle for three returns of 10, 11 and 12 yards that represented the Broncos' only return chances of the day.
--COACHING: B. Brock Osweiler wasn't playing badly when Gary Kubiak pulled him in the third quarter Sunday, but the Broncos - and their fans, over whom a panic seemed to be settling - desperately needed the spark that Peyton Manning provided. But just as crucial was the removal of Michael Schofield at right tackle in place of Tyler Polumbus. Those allowed the Broncos to overcome sloppy play and some questionable early calls - including a third-and-1 pass that skipped off Jordan Norwood's hands and led to an interception.