DENVER, CO - OCTOBER 28: Quarterback Peyton Manning #18 of the Denver Broncos runs with the ball during the third quarter against the New Orleans Saints at Sports Authority Field Field at Mile High on October 28, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. The Broncos defeated the Saints 34-14. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
There was a reason, after all, that for 13 straight seasons, Manning didn't miss a single game.
Manning banged his right thumb on a helmet late in the second quarter of the Broncos' 34-14 win over the Saints at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, and spent the two-minute warning getting the digit examined by Broncos trainers. He threw two more passes before halftime, one incomplete, and neither impressive, and all across the Rocky Mountains, Broncos fans wondered if it would be a thumb - and not the neck - that could derail Manning's comeback season.
"Quarterbacks, probably the biggest fear is a thumb on a helmet of a defensive lineman," Manning said.
Turns out, it's nothing a manicurist can't fix. Manning cracked the nail on his thumb, but otherwise escaped injury.
"It'll be sore tomorrow, but I'm probably a bit lucky," Manning said.
Though Manning was the final player to return to the field after halftime, just in time for a couple of warm-up tosses, he led the Broncos on an 11-play, 93-yard touchdown drive, the Broncos' second scoring drive of more than 90 yards in the game, and a score that gave Denver a 24-7 lead early in the third quarter.
"The only thing that ever kept him out of a game was something where you've got to go have surgery, the most serious injury you can have," Denver tight end Jacob Tamme said. "He definitely is a tough guy. When he gets hit, he hops up, and that's the kind of guy you want as your quarterback."
By the time the Broncos wrapped up the blowout, Manning had put together his finest performance as Denver's QB - 305 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions, and a season-high passer rating of 138.9. It was his fifth straight 300-yard passing game, and he was allowed to watch the final two minutes of the game while rookie Brock Osweiler directed the Broncos' final possession.
"He feels good about himself, he feels confident in his body, that he can last and sustain hits, and play great football," said wide receiver Brandon Stokley, Manning's longtime friend and teammate.
That Manning is playing better now after seven games than he was in September is exactly what the Broncos need as they prepare for a playoff push. The Broncos (4-3, 2-0 AFC West) have a one-game lead in the AFC West over San Diego and Oakland, both 3-4, two teams the Broncos already have defeated head to head.
This game was supposed to be a shootout, yet only the Broncos seemed ready for one.
The Saints, who arrived in Denver with a two-game winning streak, received little boost, emotional or otherwise, from the return of interim head coach Joe Vitt after a six-game suspension for his role in the Bountygate.
"There's nothing I can do to put pixie dust on this team to make it play better, to make it play more emotional, and there's probably more hype than substance on my part," Vitt said.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw a touchdown pass (a 29-yard catch-and-run to Darren Sproles early in the second quarter) to extend his NFL record to 50 games, but was flustered by the Broncos' pass rush and tight pass coverage. Brees, who added a late touchdown pass to tight end Jimmy Graham, had only 213 passing yards, his lowest total of the season.
New Orleans converted only one third down. Brees successfully lobbied Vitt to try for a fourth-down conversion near midfield in the second quarter, when the game was tied at 7. Denver linebacker Wesley Woodyard leapt to intercept Brees' pass. Denver scored five plays later, and though the Broncos led only 17-7 at halftime, the Saints never again provided a significant challenge.
"That was just very stale," Brees said. "Never felt like we could ever really get anything going."
Nor could the Saints defense do anything to help.
Vitt, perhaps in an effort to better prepare his defense for Manning's no-huddle offense, benched two run-stopping defensive tackles, and went light on the defensive line. The Broncos responded by leaning heavily on running back Willis McGahee. A week after his 31st birthday, McGahee turned in his 33rd 100-yard rushing game, with 122 yards on 23 carries.
"Our running game really came alive," Manning said. "All of the deep passes were off play-action. If you're not running the ball well, there's no reason for a defense to bite on play action."
Manning completed passes to seven receivers, a sign that the Broncos' offense is continuing to evolve. Eric Decker caught two of Manning's touchdown throws, and Demaryius Thomas - the game's leading receiver with seven catches for 137 yards - added another.
It was as complete a game the Broncos have played all season, yet as Manning prepared to leave the stadium late Sunday, he was already thinking about the big picture. A Chargers loss earlier in the day meant sole possession of first place in the division, with an AFC road game at Cincinnati next week.
"We're going to build off this win, build some consistency as an offense, and hopefully I can just continue to just make strides and be on the same page as the receivers," Manning said.
(Copyright © 2012 USA TODAY)