This was toward the end of Denver quarterback Brock Osweiler’s second start in the NFL on Sunday night—his first against a 10-0 team led by the greatest quarterback in football today—as flurries swirled near the Rockies. The wind chill, 19 degrees, made even the diehards think three-and-a-half hours outside was just about enough.
Two minutes into overtime. Denver 24, New England 24. Third-and-one, Patriots’ 48-yard line.
In the huddle, Osweiler called two plays; coach and play-caller Gary Kubiak told Osweiler before the play, “You get us the best one.” Osweiler would give a signal once he saw how the Patriots aligned on defense. As the huddle broke, the quarterback told running back C.J. Anderson, “Hey man, just go. Make a play.”
Osweiler got to the line, under center, and surveyed the New England front. He was going to run C.J. Anderson to the weak side (that was his first call in the huddle) but saw something he didn’t like there—maybe an unblocked Rob Ninkovich hovering on the quarterback’s right. Whatever, he switched to a strong-side sweep to the left. “KILL! KILL! KILL!” he called, arms stretched out parallel to the ground. To the left, tight end Vernon Davis and a strong blocking wide receiver, Bennie Fowler, got ready to seal the left side for Anderson.
“It’s a wide toss,” said left guard Evan Mathis, “and if the play goes the way it’s designed, there should be one of our guys on every one of theirs, except for the deep safety. Then the back’s got to make that guy miss.”
“OMAHA!” yelled Osweiler.
(Hey! Isn’t that Peyton Manning’s cadence-starter? Well, it was.)
Anderson, seven yards deep in a classic tailback position, bolted left and took a pitch from Osweiler. Mathis was right. There was a hat-on-a-hat throughout the left end, right tackle Ryan Harris going out to sweep away cornerback Malcolm Butler, Davis eliminating safety Devin McCourty, and, most impressively, center Matt Paradis sprinting out after snapping the ball and cutting down linebacker Jonathan Freeny. The only player left, just as Mathis said, was safety Duron Harmon, angling to the sideline to push Anderson out at the 30-yard line.
“My job,” Anderson said from Denver near midnight, “was just run to the open space, then make the guy miss.” Hugging the sideline, Anderson did that. For the last 30 yards he was all alone, and the Patriots weren’t unbeaten anymore, and there was some mystery in the AFC.
And then there was one: Carolina, the only undefeated team left in the NFL entering December.
If you’re New England, the only worrisome thing is the condition of tight end Rob Gronkowski, who went down in agony with an apparent right knee injury late in the game. But Adam Schefter reported the injury wasn’t believed to be serious. If it isn’t, the verdict in Denver isn’t that big a loss. The Patriots (10-1) played without both top wideouts, with a makeshift offensive line, without impact linebacker Jamie Collins, and without breakout back Dion Lewis. A crucial turnover was made by an undrafted free agent, Chris Harper, the seventh wide receiver to play for the team this year; he dropped a punt, and Denver recovered and later scored. The Patriots don’t play a team better than 6-5 in the last five games, while the 9-2 Bengals and 9-2 Broncos play each other Dec. 28. Denver also is at Pittsburgh in three weeks. So New England is still very much in control of home field throughout the AFC playoffs.
But Denver has to feel reborn this morning. With Manning playing so unreliably—14 interceptions in his last six games—Osweiler’s efficiency in his two starts and his 2-0 record should ensure he’ll keep the job as long as he continues to play low-error football.
Every year the NFL produces a story or two or three as good as this one. The Osweiler story will be told a lot in the coming weeks … a 6-foot-8 Montana kid who turned down a basketball offer from Gonzaga to play quarterback at Arizona State. He caught the eye of Denver football czar John Elway before the 2012 draft and got picked late in the second round to learn the pro craft behind Manning. It was Manning who sat upstairs Sunday to watch the New England defensive tendencies and came down to the locker room at halftime to spend a few minutes spilling what he’d seen to Osweiler.
Osweiler is quite sure of himself. He threw a few 95-mph fastballs Sunday through the snowflakes, and you can see that the moment is not too big for him. He does have to learn to throw the ball away instead of taking big sacks; one of those cost Denver a possible field goal Sunday night.
“Even when he wasn’t starting,” Mathis said from Denver on Sunday night, “he was getting a lot of reps this……(continue reading)