DENVER — Tom Brady handing off like he was Tim Tebow. The Panthers playing like they had nothing wrapped up. The Browns looking for an AWOL Johnny Manziel.
Week 17 was full of big calls, none more so than Gary Kubiak’s decision to bench Brock Osweiler for Peyton Manning.
“I don’t think Brock did anything wrong,” Kubiak said. “Just my gut told me to turn it over to him.”
Kubiak’s hunch paid off as Manning led Denver to 20 points in 1 1-2 quarters for a 27-20 win that gave Denver the top seed in the AFC playoffs.
Even though Osweiler had thrown for 222 first-half yards, including a 72-yard TD to Demaryius Thomas on the game’s second play, five turnovers — only one of which was his fault — ended Osweiler’s day.
Fans greeted Manning like a conquering hero when he trotted onto the field with 8:18 left in the third quarter.
“They were cheering loud, but I’m pretty sure everybody was in their same seats when they were booing my butt off against Kansas City back about six weeks ago,” Manning said of his four-interception nightmare that sent him to the sideline with a torn left plantar fascia on Nov. 15.
So, the Broncos (12-4) head into their first-round bye with a quarterback quandary on their hands.
Kubiak isn’t saying who his starter will be. Osweiler has been more effective, but Manning is far more accomplished and experienced — 24 playoff starts, albeit 13 of them losses.
Kubiak needed to see how Manning would do before the playoffs began, and he’ll find out this week how his sore foot held up.
One thing’s for sure, Kubiak said: This is a nice problem to have.
“I would say it’s enjoyable because of where we’re at. In this business you work really, really hard to get in the position that we’re in right now and to be a part of this next month,” Kubiak said. “There’s always going to be tough decisions to make.”
Manning has played in two dozen playoff games, but he’s gone one-and-done an NFL-worst nine times. He nearly led the league in interceptions despite missing nearly half this season, finishing one behind Blake Bortles’ 18. And he was just 5 of 9 for 69 yards Sunday.
Osweiler is more mobile, athletic and accurate right now.
But Manning makes up for that in pedigree and panache. He also has something to prove now after starting out Sunday as a backup for the first time as a pro.
GM John Elway’s philosophy in free agency is to go after younger players, but he was more than willing to make exceptions for Manning and DeMarcus Ware, both coming off injuries when they got their second chance in Denver.
“I like getting Hall of Fame players with chips on their shoulders,” Elway explained last year.
And in Manning he now has a big-time player with a huge chip on his shoulder.
Manning’s nemesis, meanwhile, is sore all over except for his right shoulder.
With the Patriots concerned about protecting Tom Brady’s health, he threw a season-low 21 passes in New England’s 20-10 loss to Miami that bumped the Pats from the No. 1 seed when Manning led Denver’s comeback.
Still, Brady was lucky to make it through the game in one piece. He was sacked twice and endured at least half a dozen knockdowns. He’s dealing with a puffy ankle this week.
“I’m pretty sore,” Brady said, “but I’ll be all right.”
All of New England’s four losses have come in the past six games, beginning with an overtime loss at Denver when Osweiler led the Broncos back from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit.
The Panthers (15-1) secured the top seed in the NFC and could have rested some players but didn’t.
Carolina entered the weekend needing a win over Tampa Bay or an Arizona loss to clinch home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs. But coach Ron Rivera informed stadium operations not to post any highlights of the Cardinals-Seahawks game inside the stadium.
Rivera kept his starters in the game until late in the fourth quarter, even with his team up by three touchdowns and the Cardinals losing by 30 points to the Seahawks.
Fans questioned Rivera’s decisions on social media, concerned the Panthers might lose a key player even with the top seed already locked up.
“I wanted to make sure we were focusing in on what we needed to do,” Rivera said. “We wanted to play the way we needed to play. It’s interesting, like I said the other day, I would have loved to see what we would have done if we were 15-0. But we played it, we played to win and that’s the way we approached things.”
Carolina did lose starting cornerback Charles Tillman to a knee injury early in the third quarter with the Panthers leading 24-3.
The Browns wrapped up another dismal season searching for a new coach and GM, but finally finding Johnny Football.
Manziel rejoined his teammates Monday in time to pack up for the offseason.
Manziel was not required to be at the season finale against Pittsburgh because he was recovering from a concussion. Owner Jimmy Haslam said the quarterback missed a medical treatment at the team’s facility, as required for players with head injuries, and Manziel reportedly was seen in Las Vegas over the weekend.
Typically, players who have concussions are sensitive to noise, light and are encouraged to rest as they recover.
That’s pretty much the opposite of Vegas.