|Peyton Manning is in complete control of the Broncos. (US Presswire)|
DENVER -- It was early in the second quarter, as the Broncos trailed Tampa Bay by a field goal, and Peyton Manning had already seen enough.
The Broncos were struggling and a series of miscues and holding calls had apparently caused Manning to reach a boiling point. After one failed series, Manning called the entire offense over to a corner of the Denver bench, and for about two minutes, let the players know of his dissatisfaction. He wasn't screaming. He wasn't blaming. He was, in effect, coaching.
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Tampa Bay would lead 10-7 at halftime and in the third quarter the Broncos' offense continued to struggle. Manning again called the offense together and this time the conversation didn't look like he was asking the offensive line what they wanted for Christmas.
Whether it was Manning's speeches, or the fact that on this particular possession the Broncos were working with a short field, something clicked. Manning took the Broncos on a four-play, 52-yard drive that ended with a perfect throw to Demaryius Thomas for an 8-yard touchdown. Denver had a 14-10 lead and later Manning added another touchdown pass to Thomas for a 21-10 lead which later grew to 28-10 after a Josh Freeman pick-six. That was 21 unanswered third quarter points. Game over.
The Broncos' 31-23 win means they capture the AFC West and they did so mainly because of one person.
Sure, maybe it's politically incorrect and horribly cliché to say that Manning willed his way to this win, and to a division title. Oh, hell, who am I kidding: Manning willed his way to win this game, and a division title. In some ways, those two drives, prefaced by the Manning outbursts, are why the Broncos are among the scariest teams in football. Sure, Tim Tebow took Denver to the playoffs, but that was luck, like winning the lottery the same day a supermodel accepts your phone call.
Manning was 27 of 38 for 242 yards and three touchdowns. The Broncos are 9-3, winners of seven consecutive games, and despite making the playoffs and winning the division there was no massive celebration. That is also the Manning effect.
"Business as usual," said coach John Fox.
After the game, Manning was typically bland, and that's the way he likes it. You get the feeling Manning wants to somehow sneak these Broncos under the radar. Of course, with Manning in control, he couldn't sneak anywhere unless he possessed a cloaking device.
What Manning did was win this game and this year with skill, not a freak show, as the Broncos did last year. This is the kind of game -- obliterating a stubborn Tampa Bay team -- that further cements two things: Manning as comeback player of the year and John Elway as executive of the year for out-maneuvering other contenders aiming to get a rose from Manning.
Flash back quickly to this past spring when teams were jockeying for Manning. The prevailing belief was whichever team got him would be a playoff contender. Miami tried and its season was a failure (though the Dolphins have found a franchise thrower). San Francisco passed and its quarterback situation is, well, getting interesting. Tennessee tried and its year was a dumpster fire. So was Arizona’s.
Imagine if the Dolphins, Titans or Cardinals had Manning. Don't pretend he wouldn’t have made a huge difference for those franchises the same way he was for the Broncos.
Manning tossed his 29th touchdown this season, the most in team history, more than Elway's previous record of 27. He also this season passed Dan Marino for the second most completions in league history with only Brett Favre ahead of him.
He did all of this coming off of enough neck surgeries for six men. You can't marvel enough. The eyes can’t pop out enough.
Manning still isn't perfect. There were some curiously bad throws and a horrific interception. Still, because of Manning, the Broncos might be the second scariest team in the conference now. They possess the offensive versatility of Houston but have more defensive playmakers. Denver still isn't as good as New England, but who knows, get a home game against the Patriots and anything could happen.
What this game, and this season, was about for Denver was Manning. The Broncos have won the division and now Manning wants much more.