DENVER — The top seed in the AFC playoffs belongs to Denver, along with a quarterback quandary.
Peyton Manning’s stint as a backup didn’t last very long. He replaced Brock Osweiler in the third quarter Sunday and led the Broncos to a 27-20 win over San Diego.
Coach Gary Kubiak said he played a hunch, but he refused to reveal who will be his starter in the playoffs — or even acknowledge he has quite the puzzle at the position.
Osweiler threw for 232 yards, including a 72-yard TD pass to Demaryius Thomas on the game’s second play. But he was victimized by five turnovers, including two interceptions that weren’t his fault, and a fumble by Emmanuel Sanders at the 10-yard line after a 46-yard reception.
One of Osweiler’s interceptions went off receiver Jordan Norwood’s hands. His arm was hit by a linebacker on the other, and his day was done after a fumble by C.J. Anderson on the second play after halftime.
None of that was his fault, but the Broncos needed a spark and Manning provided it.
"I don’t think Brock did anything wrong," Kubiak said. "I know we had the turnovers, but a couple of them he had nothing to do with. But just my gut told me to turn it over to him and let him lead the football team. I’m just very proud of him. He’s worked really hard to stay there for us and it couldn’t be a bigger day to be there for us."
Manning led Denver to 20 points in 1 1/2 quarters despite going just 5 of 9 for 69 yards.
"It was tough on the emotions," Osweiler said. "But winning the AFC West is what it’s all about."
Denver did that for the fifth consecutive time, staving off the Kansas City Chiefs, whose 23-17 win over Oakland would have sent the Broncos (12-4) tumbling into the wild-card round with a loss to San Diego.
The Chargers (4-12) wrapped up what might have been their final season representing San Diego as ownership tries to move the team to L.A.
Manning’s last scoring drive lasted one play: a 23-yard run by Ronnie Hillman after emergency safety Shiloh Keo, who surrendered Antonio Gates’ go-ahead TD in the third quarter, picked off Philip Rivers’ errant pass with just under five minutes remaining.
Keo was in because starter Darian Stewart aggravated a pulled hamstring, one of two big injuries for Denver. The Broncos also lost Pro Bowl pass rusher DeMarcus Ware to a knee injury.
Rivers, for one, was surprised to see Osweiler get the hook.
"It wasn’t like he was stinking it up out there," Rivers said. "But not surprised in the sense that you have a guy that hasn’t been a backup in a game since ’94 and is one of the best of all time."
Manning was healthy enough to suit up for the first time in seven weeks. Previously, in street clothes he’d watched his longtime understudy either from the sideline or on TV while dealing with an injured left foot. This was Manning’s first game serving as a backup since his freshman year at Tennessee when he replaced an injured Todd Helton against Mississippi State on Sept. 24, 1994.
Because he didn’t start, Manning didn’t break the tie he holds with Brett Favre for most regular-season wins, 186.
Manning led the Broncos to 10 quick points and a 17-12 lead, but the league’s best defence frittered it away when Tyrell Williams broke free for an 80-yard TD that put San Diego back on top 20-17.
"We didn’t want them to lay down, but we wanted them to lay down a little faster than that," Aqib Talib said with a chuckle.
Cornerback Steve Williams saw that they didn’t. He stripped and recovered Sanders’ fumble, intercepted the ball that bounced off Norwood’s hands and forced a fumble on a sack.
Manning said his foot felt good after the game, but he has to see how he feels Monday after taking a hard hit from defensive tackle Damion Square.
"He got me right in the chest," Manning said. "I’ve got to see how I feel tomorrow. I’m glad we won the division. I’m glad we won this game today. That would have been pretty sickening (to lose). It’s been a different year. I was glad to be able to contribute in some way today."
So was Osweiler.
"Football is the ultimate team sport. It takes the entire team to win and I think we showed that today," Osweiler said. "As long as this football team is winning games, shoot, I don’t care who’s playing quarterback."
NOTES: When Manning went in, so did Tyler Polumbus for struggling RT Michael Schofield. … San Diego lost C Trevor Robinson (shoulder), RT Chris Hairston (abdomen), who was starting for King Dunlap (ankle) and Tyreek Burwell (knee) along with WR Malcom Floyd (concussion).