DENVER -- It was time for the coronation. The return of Peyton Manning was finally here. The trumpets blared, the angels sang, the cheering didn't stop.
Manning played the part of returning hero well. His first meaningful pass in almost two years was for 13 yards. It looked routine. It looked familiar. It felt comfortable, like old leather. A third-down pass to Brandon Stokley went for 9 yards. It was vintage Manning -- pat the football, pat the football, pat the football, then quick release. How many times have we all seen that? A hundred ... a thousand ... a few thousand?
In Denver's 31-19 victory against Pittsburgh, he even took a rib-compressing sack. Got up. Jogged off the field like nothing happened. The state exhaled, the Earth kept spinning. When Manning tossed a 71-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas, giving the Broncos a 14-13 third quarter lead, you got the feeling there was no way Manning was losing this game. He would not.
No one will ever truly know how hard Manning worked to get back to this point except Manning, but there's no question he is back. He didn't pick apart some scrub team. This wasn't Buffalo he beat. This was an excellent Pittsburgh defense, and Manning, at times using the fluidity of a no-huddle offense, totally dissected it.
Let's not get too grandiose and say this guarantees a Super Bowl spot for Denver. Let's keep the drool to a minimum for a moment, but there should be no downplaying of what happened here. A football player that had four neck surgeries, was basically kicked out on his ass by his old team, told to retire by some, came back after a nearly two-year layoff and looked like he never missed a beat. There has to be adamantium running through Manning's veins.
Does this feel like vindication, Manning was asked? "I've never," he said, " ... that would be giving them way too much credit."
If there is any kind of problem with Manning's neck, it doesn't show. If there is a throw he can't make, we didn't see it. If there is anything he can't do, we don't know it.
"He's amazing," Stokley said. "You can see why he's one of the greatest to ever play. It takes a lot of mental strength to come back like this and then play this well."
"What can you say?" Steelers safety Troy Polamalu said. "I mean, he's Peyton Manning. He's the same Peyton Manning. I don't know how to explain."
Some of this is simply inexplicable. Like a Kardashian. But much of it is just Manning. That's it. That's all.
Manning isn't merely the king of the comeback, he's also in midseason form when it comes to his canned and cliché interviews. When asked about reaching 400 touchdowns and becoming the fastest in NFL history to do so (needing only 227 games), Manning responded, "I kind of accept it on behalf of many great [past] teammates and coaches."
Oh, he's good. He's really good. At this point, he can say whatever he wants.
Manning finished 19 of 26 for 253 yards and two scores with a passer rating of 129.2. Again, this was Pittsburgh, and Manning made every kind of throw. Deep sideline passes, deep middle throws, and throws on the run. He ran the no-huddle with tremendous ease and he spread the football to seven different receivers.
Once Manning went to the no-huddle, the Broncos scored three touchdowns and a field goal. That's because Manning's football synapses can digest that type of offense even against a frenetic blitzing team like Pittsburgh.
You see the difference between a Manning and a media concoction like Tim Tebow. Manning can run an offense in multiple dimensions. Tebow is a punt protector.
There is another component to this story. This game wasn't merely a statement about Manning. It was also a statement to the rest of the league. The division is ripe for the taking and a healthy Manning makes that extremely possible. It also makes the Broncos major players in the playoff race -- assuming Manning can continue to be healthy.
There's two words that might sum up what happened on Sunday night, and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin summed them up nicely.