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At the Broncos' regular-season finale, fans waited for one
man. That man waited 49 days for his moment of redemption. As the Broncos steered and veered toward the playoffs, quarterback Peyton Manning stood in the shadows, his injured left foot creating concern that he might not play again this season.
With the Broncos trailing 13-7, Manning entered as a reliever for the first time in his NFL career, rallying the Broncos to their fifth consecutive AFC West title and a No. 1 playoff seed. His return provided a Red Bull energy boost, and created some interesting looks.
Not counting kneel downs, Manning spent 10 snaps under center and 12 in shotgun formation. Such balance remained largely absent earlier this season with Manning. In the 39-year-old's last start on Nov. 15, he worked under center twice, and a penalty nullified one play. He operated in shotgun 28 times.
Manning provides a presence when he steps into the huddle. But entering the divisional playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, he might also offer balance.
"That's how he played against San Diego. He can do both. There are no hold backs or anything we have to do. He's ready to go," Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said Monday. "He's working in everything we do."
Manning as a game manager? What in the world of Trent Dilfer is going on here? A mere uttering of the phrase creates a grimace. But the idea of Manning as a complementary player appeared in a victory over the San Diego Chargers on Jan. 3. He helped the Broncos more by getting them in the right running plays than anything he did with his right arm. The Broncos rushed 10 times for 78 yards with Manning under center, a stark contrast to the blueprint in his previous nine starts.
"It doesn't change the angles of the things we want to do, but it's tremendous having him do both," running back C.J. Anderson said. "With 18 out there, center, shotgun, he can be all the way in the end zone, and see the defense and put us in the best play possible."
After an offseason of install and repetitions, including under center, Manning appeared more comfortable in the shotgun beginning at Kansas City in week two. He went to the uptempo attack, creating a spark in a comeback victory.
However, in Manning's absence, the ground shifted under the Broncos' feet. Through nine games — all Manning starts— the Broncos ranked 29th in rushing at 86 yards per game. In the final six games, they averaged 135.1 yards on the ground, seventh best during that stretch. The commitment to the run, especially at home, wore down defensive lineman. Running backs Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson finished with an identical 228 yards in the fourth quarter, tied for the seventh best in the NFL.
"We can tire them down," Anderson said. "I just feel like when we execute we can run against anyone."
Against the Chargers, Manning diagnosed multiple blitzes, checking into runs that led to big gains. Denver averaged 5.6 yards per attempt in shotgun, leading Manning to admit he did a "great job handing off."
The Broncos boast a 9-1 record when they run the ball at least 25 times. The lone loss came at Pittsburgh when they rushed for 88 yards in the first half on 17 carries, but attempted just eight runs in the second half.
When Manning returned against the Chargers, he used his brain to create brawn through audibles. The offensive line fed off the running plays, firing off the ball with authority. The unpredictable attack left the defense vulnerable. In two of Manning's best shotgun plays, he drew the Chargers offsides with his cadence.
It was Manning at his best in this scheme: keeping the defense guessing while settling down his offense.
"It really shouldn't change anything (with Manning starting)," offensive coordinator Rick Dennison said. "We're not going to create two or three playbooks during the year. We're going to do what we do best — obviously focus on some specifics, without getting into those — but we shouldn't change anything we do. All our operation will be the same."
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