By Larry Fine
(Reuters) - Peyton Manning rode the bench before riding to the rescue for the Denver Broncos on Sunday in what might set up an enthralling run to the Super Bowl in the twilight of the quarterback's extraordinary career.
Manning has battled through injuries, a diminishment of his already marginal ability to move, and a loss of throwing power that had some NFL observers wondering if the Broncos might be better off playing back-up quarterback Brock Osweiler.
Before his reappearance against the San Diego Chargers, Manning had thrown 17 interceptions and nine touchdown passes.
Now some of the same critics are saying the five-time NFL MVP might be just the quarterback to lead the AFC's top-seeded team to Super Bowl 50.
Denver coach Gary Kubiak would not commit on who would be the starting quarterback when the Broncos join the playoffs in the divisional round.
"Yesterday it took both of them," Kubiak told reporters on Monday. "It's taken all of us all year long.
"I'm just very proud of both of them after the job they've done."
After being sidelined for seven weeks because of a foot injury, the 14-time Pro Bowler found himself elevated to backup for the regular season-finale.
When the Broncos' offense stalled against the Chargers, the 39-year-old Manning was summoned in relief.
Following 186 victories as an NFL starter, the cerebral Manning took charge. The quarterback, who can read opposing defenses like the best offensive coordinators, was content to hand the ball off and manage a controlled attack.
Trotting onto the gridiron midway through the third quarter with Denver trailing 13-7 after committing five turnovers, Manning steered the Broncos to 20 points in a 27-20 home win that made Denver 12-4 and gave them a first-round playoff bye.
His appearance electrified the crowd and his team mates.
"Man, I heard the crowd go wild. I turned around, and that's when I saw Peyton running on the field," said Broncos defensive tackle Antonio Smith after the game.
"That energy was exactly what we needed, exactly when we needed it."
The veteran completed five-of-nine passes for 69 yards in directing four scoring drives without any turnovers.
Manning, who missed the 2011 season with Indianapolis due to neck surgeries before joining the Broncos, just might have earned himself a chance to go out on top with another Super Bowl ring to add to his 2007 triumph with the Colts.
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)