5 Biggest Takeaways from Denver Broncos' Week 17 Win over the Chargers
The Denver Broncos sealed the first overall seed in the AFC with a 27-20 win over the San Diego Chargers (and a bit of help from the Miami Dolphins). They secured their fifth straight AFC West title with the victory and are once again bound for the postseason.
Brock Osweiler started the game, but he was pulled in the third quarter for Peyton Manning. The future Hall of Fame quarterback began the game as a backup. This is the first time Manning has suited up as a backup since his freshmen year (1994) at Tennessee when he initially backed up Todd Helton.
Manning came into the game, and the stadium—plus the sidelines—seemed to catch a spark.
Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak did not hesitate to bring Manning off the bench.
“No, just because my gut with him throughout up to this point this week—no, I felt very comfortable with him. For him to step up and say, ‘Okay, I’m back. I’m ready to go. I’m with the football team. I will be available,’ that’s sending a tremendous message, not to just me, but to our whole team.”
Here are the five biggest takeaways from the Broncos win over the Chargers.
Demaryius Thomas Dominates Early
The Broncos came out firing on offense, and their second play of the game provided plenty of ammunition. Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas caught a short pass, made a few moves and took the ball 72 yards for a touchdown. It was a huge play almost immediately out of the gate, and it certainly fired up the crowd at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Thomas felt the team could build a lot of momentum off that initial touchdown.
“I thought we were going to put up a lot of points after that play, the cornerback could’ve made a tackle but really didn’t. I went down to score. I went down and made a big play. We could’ve scored again but had a turnover so I thought it was going to be 28-3 at halftime.” Thomas concluded, “It could’ve been that way but we fought through it and got the win.”
The team struggled to find momentum after that play, as turnovers plagued it. Instead, it had to wait for a switch at quarterback to find that spark again.
Thomas finished the game with five catches for 117 yards and one touchdown. For the second year in a row, Thomas had more than 100 catches on the season. In 2015, Thomas snared 105 passes for 1,304 yards and six receiving touchdowns.
Rushing Attack Huge
The rushing attack was huge for the Broncos on Sunday. Starter Ronnie Hillman led the way with 15 carries for 117 yards and one touchdown. That marked his fourth 100-yard game of the year, and his speed helped gash the Chargers defense. Backup C.J. Anderson had 15 carries for 95 yards and one touchdown.
However, a fumble in the third quarter (the team’s fifth turnover of the game) caused the Broncos to make a shift at quarterback.
After the fumble, Anderson was miffed.
“I was pissed. I was just mad. You might see a difference, but I was just mad. I thought that I ran hard all game, but when that happens—just like in Cincinnati last week—I was just pissed off and mad at myself.”
After the game, Hillman talked about his touchdown.
“It was just a call that I just so happened to hit and it was a perfect call for what they were doing. They shifted the line to the left and we ran right, and we scored. It felt good to know that we went up, now we had to rely on the defense, and they did their thing obviously like they do week in and week out, and we came up with the win.”
Hillman finishes 2015 with a career-high 863 yards rushing. His seven rushing touchdowns are also a career high. Used as a receiver more recently, Hillman had 24 catches this season (also a career high) for 111 yards receiving.
Anderson finishes the year with 720 yards rushing, five rushing touchdowns and 25 catches for 183 yards receiving. Combined on the season, the Broncos had a formidable rushing attack between these two. They need to be more consistent on the ground in order to have postseason success, but if Sunday is any indication, they may have found the best formula for success.
Adjustments to the Offensive Line
The Broncos offensive line has seen several incarnations this season as it tries to find the right combination of players while dealing with devastating injuries. Right tackle Michael Schofield, a third-round pick in 2014, has been struggling most of this season. He struggled so much in the Chargers game, the team decided to put veteran Tyler Polumbus in his place.
Kubiak knew the team had to make changes up front even though they had moved the ball consistently.
“Yeah, we struggled up front. We had 500 yards of offense. It’s hard to say you struggled up front, but for some reason, we got to a situation there late in the second quarter, and we really had a hard time with them, so we took Michael out."
Kubiak continued, “It goes back to like I said, we’ve played everybody this year. Tyler went in. I turned to [offensive line coach] Clancy [Barone], I said, ‘You okay?’ He said, ‘Yeah, give him a chance,’ and he went in and played well. It’s just another example of us—we’ve got some young guys up front.”
When Manning came into the game, the team responded—and so did the offensive line. While Osweiler was getting beat up, Manning was only sacked once and hit once.
Kubiak noted the difference in the offensive line, plus the difference that Manning gives them.
“Well, Peyton got rid of that ball pretty quick, too. He took some shots. We had a couple of plays set up that could have ended the game—a post to [WR] Emmanuel [Sanders] and if we have time to make the throws.” Kubiak admitted, “I think we could have protected better, but when you move the ball like we did, somebody is doing something right.”
The Broncos have a team built to win the Super Bowl. If they’ve finally found the correct offensive line combination, then that would greatly help them on their quest to win a World Championship.
Turnovers a Big Problem
Before the Broncos made the switch to Manning, they had five turnovers against the Chargers. Osweiler had thrown two interceptions, although one was off a tipped pass. The other interception came when Osweiler was getting hit as he threw. In addition to the picks, he had also coughed up the ball on a play that was ruled a fumble and not a forward pass.
Osweiler was disappointed in the team’s propensity to turn the ball over.
“The turnovers were very disappointing. To go out there and have that many turnovers in the first half, I don’t care who’s fault it was, I’m always going to point the finger at myself. I can always play better, I can put us in a better situation to protect that football.”
Osweiler concluded, “To answer your question: Yes, it was very disappointing, at home, to turn the football over like that. Once again, just like we always do, we’ll look at the tape, we’ll learn from it, we’ll clean it up, and we’ll move forward.”
The young quarterback wasn’t the only player to get a bit careless with the football. Wide receiver Sanders coughed up the rock spinning for extra yards after a big gain. Running back Anderson also coughed up the rock on the final turnover of the game that led to the team making a change at quarterback.
Peyton Manning Returns Triumphant
Manning hadn’t been a backup for more than 20 years, but he began Sunday as a reserve player behind Osweiler. The last time he was a backup, Manning was a freshman at Tennessee, and the starter was Helton.
The future Hall of Famer showed that he could be a supportive teammate as he stood on the sidelines in uniform looking for any way he could help. Manning would often be seen talking with Osweiler as the game moved through the first half.
When the team needed him, Manning was ready—and the team responded positively to his return.
Manning wouldn’t take credit for changing the momentum of the team once he came in the game.
“I don’t know. I don’t know if I can—sometimes those things are so easy to say after the fact because Ronnie made a good run and C.J. made a couple of good runs. I’m not sure that had much to do with me being in there.”
Manning continued, “I think just that the execution was better in the second half. Up front, they gave some bigger holes to run the ball. I can’t say—I can’t take credit for having a really good handoff. Like I’m helping those guys hold onto the ball. I refuse to do that.”
The Broncos had turned things over to Osweiler while Manning was hurt. When the team struggled and needed a spark, Manning was there for them now that he’s healthy enough to play.
Entering the postseason as the AFC’s first overall seed, Manning now could be back for good as the team launches on its journey into the playoffs.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via the Broncos media department unless otherwise noted. Advanced stats via ESPN's employees-only database.