ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Gary Kubiak stuck to his word in naming Peyton Manning his starter even after declaring that Brock Osweiler had done nothing to deserve a demotion.
"Peyton’s our quarterback," Kubiak said on the day Manning hobbled to the sideline and gave way to his longtime understudy following his fourth interception against Kansas City on Nov. 15. "If he’s healthy and ready to go, Peyton’s our quarterback."
Manning is healthy and ready to go.
So, he’ll be under centre for the Denver Broncos (12-4) in the playoffs.
Kubiak called his quarterbacks into his office Thursday when players returned from a three-day furlough and informed them of his decision.
"I feel really good about this," Kubiak said. "I feel good about how far Peyton has come, where he’s at physically, mentally. I could see it happening throughout the course of the last two weeks. I’m excited for him to get going."
Manning said his left foot is fine now and he’s even refreshed after taking nearly two months off.
He also suffered no lingering effects from Damion Square’s textbook helmet-to-chest hit on Sunday in what the 39-year-old quarterback called his welcome-back-to-football moment.
"I felt good going into the game Sunday, had no issues coming out," Manning said. "And these past couple of days off certainly helped as well."
Manning praised his backup, saying the Broncos wouldn’t be the AFC’s top seed without him, "but I’m looking forward to being back" calling the shots beginning Jan. 17 in the divisional round.
Osweiler reacted the way Kubiak and GM John Elway hoped he would: with disappointment and determination.
"I stand behind Peyton. I stand behind Coach. I stand behind this team," Osweiler said. "You’re going to see the same exact guy out of me as you’ve seen the whole season. Bottom line: I just care about this football team winning games. If coach thinks Peyton gives the team the best chance, then I fully support that."
Manning missed seven starts with a torn plantar fascia. He returned to action Sunday when he relieved Osweiler in the second half and led the Broncos to a 27-20 win over San Diego. That marked Manning’s first game as a backup since his freshman year at Tennessee.
Manning went 7-2 as Denver’s starter, although he struggled all season with his foot injury, which affected his throwing motion and led to right shoulder and rib injuries as well. It also forced the Broncos to put Manning in the pistol or shotgun on most snaps. On Sunday, he was under centre 40 per cent of the time, which did wonders for their ground game.
"I’m glad to have him back," receiver Demaryius Thomas said. "I’m excited to see how he’ll play now that he’s healthy."
Osweiler went 5-2 and both losses came down to dropped passes. That’s why Thomas said not to call this a quarterback quandary but dependable depth.
"We’ve got two guys we can go with," Thomas said, "and both of them can win games for us."
Osweiler, who becomes a free agent this off-season, displayed the athleticism, acumen, accuracy and arm strength to run Kubiak’s offence, but his inexperience also showed.
He failed to check out of a cornerback blitz Sunday in which he was sacked and stripped of the football, one of five turnovers following his 72-yard touchdown toss to Thomas 31 seconds into the game.
Manning got the same look a couple of times and checked into run plays away from the pressure. His superior recognition and line calls helped the Broncos gain a season-best 210 yards rushing.
Manning also drubs Osweiler in the experience department: Osweiler has never taken a snap in the playoffs. Manning is 11-13 in the playoffs over his 18-year career. That includes an NFL-record nine first-game exits, three Super Bowls and one ring.
Osweiler proved his value and improved his earning power over the last two months. Kubiak said he’s not concerned that benching him will be detrimental to their efforts to re-sign Osweiler nor is he worried he’ll crater now that he’s been benched.
"We think the world of Brock," Kubiak said. "He’s done a hell of a job. He’s played extremely well in some tough situations. He’s a very tough kid."
Osweiler said he’ll be ready if called upon again: "If anybody knows that you need to be prepared regardless of the situation, that’s me," he said.
Manning is trying to become the oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl and the first to lead two teams to a ticker tape parade.
This might even be the final month of his 18-year career that includes dozen of records, including five MVP trophies.
"Look, I’d be lying to say I’ve never thought of it," Manning said. "But I am excited to be thinking about who are we going to play next weekend and to have the opportunity to help."