So, is it Manning or Osweiler in the playoffs? |

So, is it Manning or Osweiler in the playoffs?

Peyton Manning doubtless yells, "Omaha," during his return to action for the Denver Broncos on Sunday against the San Diego Chargers during the final final game of the regular season. While fans warmly greeted Manning, is he healthy enough to lead the Broncos to postseason success?
AP file photo | FR42408 AP

One really could sense the collective orgasm across the state of Colorado on Sunday.

Peyton Manning, the sainted No. 18, returned to action in the third quarter with the sluggish Broncos leading the Chargers, 7-6, to “lead” his team to a 27-20 victory over San Diego.

Does this set up the Broncos, who earned the No. 1 seed in the AFC with the win, for a playoff run, ending in a “This one’s for Peyton” moment, and Manning riding off into the sunset with a ring?

Stipulated, Denver got a break when the Patriots lost to the Dolphins and capitalized by winning later on Sunday to earn home-field throughout the AFC playoffs. We can all agree that the Broncos have a much better chance of making the Big 50 if the road goes through Denver. The Broncos with their crowd and 5,180 feet of elevation are a much better team.

But before we all book tickets to San Francisco, what exactly did Peyton do against the Chargers and what does Broncos coach Gary Kubiak’s decision to pull Brock Osweiler mean for the rest of the season?

Cough city

Let’s put it bluntly. The Broncos played like garbage against a corpse of a team that was the Chargers. How bad is San Diego/Los Angeles? Denver was leading the Chargers, 7-6, after committing five turnovers. You hand the ball over five times against any of the 11 other teams in the playoffs and that game is over.

And let’s look over those five turnovers.

• Wide-receiver Emmanuel Sanders fumbled the ball after a long completion from Osweiler.

• Wide-receiver Jordan Norwood failed to catch a ball from Osweiler with the deflection turning into a tip-drill interception.

• Osweiler got clobbered on a pass attempt, leading to a fumble.

• An Osweiler pass was deflected at the line, and tipped for another pick.

• Running-back C.J. Anderson fumbled the ball after a significant gain.

None of the five turnovers were on Osweiler. Kubiak yanked him, a move that said, “Wake up you guys and play competent football,” or something to that effect.

Before we proclaim Manning as the messiah, he completed all of five passes in nine attempts for 69 yards.

Truth be told, the Broncos stopped coughing up the ball like a tuberculosis patient after Manning entered the game and Denver beat a 4-12 team by seven points.

So what now?

The way the crowd responded, the fans want Manning to start. But what can he bring? Five of his nine passes were short ones, but no one’s doubted his ability to dink and dunk. He had two nice medium-range completions on out routes. He was 0-for-2 on the long ball, missing his target once and taking a worrisome hit on the other.

Yes, this is a small sample size, but Manning still hasn’t established the ability to throw deep to prevent opposing defenses from crowding the line of scrimmage. If Manning starts in two weeks, I play my defense within 20 yards of the line, stuffing the run and limiting yards after the catch on short and medium passes.

Meanwhile, there’s Osweiler. How does he respond to being benched? Kubiak has made no announcement on who will start in two weeks. If you want arm strength and someone who’s more likely to be healthy after a few hits, it’s Osweiler.

Yes, he’s been with the Broncos for four years, but he hasn’t played much. This is new territory for him.

Do you start Manning, whose health is still in question and who has a less than exemplary postseason record, or Osweiler, who is essentially a rookie? Neither choice is enticing.

The script is AWOL

The great irony of this season is that Broncos finally have the defense this year that they’ve needed for the last three seasons to win a Super Bowl. Take this defense and put it with a healthy Manning from 2012, 2013 or early 2014, and Denver would be rolling to the Super Bowl.

Under Kubiak, the plan was to replicate John Elway’s two Super Bowl wins with a great defense, a running game and the occasional outburst of quarterback play (see Super Bowl XXXIII, when the Falcons dared the Broncos to pass and No. 7 did with a vengeance).

The running game hasn’t surfaced on a consistent basis. The Broncos are 18th in the league on the ground, primarily because the offensive line is a patchwork affair. Neither Manning’s nor Osweiler’s success in the pocket is guaranteed because the line hasn’t blocked for either of them.

How’s this going to get any better in the playoffs?

Can it happen?

Salvation may arrive in the fact that there is no dominant team in the AFC. New England looked like that behemoth until the Pats went 2-4 down the stretch, including a loss at Denver. At the same time, everyone who’s tried to write the Patriots’ obituary during the last 15 years has looked foolish.

Cincinnati needs to get quarterback Andy Dalton back and healthy and, even then, has a cumbersome postseason history to overcome. That said, the Bengals lost in OT in Denver with A.J. McCarron under center.

The Texans don’t overwhelm, but if the playoffs go to seed, J.J. Watt and company are coming to town in the Divisional Round, and Broncos fans will be losing sleep over that matchup with Denver’s O-line.

Kansas City’s won 11 in a row to make the postseason. Impressive, yes, but two words — Alex Smith. Pittsburgh a trendy pick as a sleeper, yet running-back DeAngelo Williams went down in a heap on Sunday and is questionable for this weekend’s game against Cincy.

Could the Broncos make the Super Bowl even with Manning or Osweiler? It’s not inconceivable, particularly getting to play at home. Do you want to bet the house on it happening with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady coming to town for a rematch or the Bengals with Dalton?

I wouldn’t.

Sports Editor Chris Freud can be reached at 970-748-2934, and @cfreud.

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