DENVER—Peyton Manning, resurrected football god, has a furrowed brow. His eyebrows are ticking in and out, up and down, and the quarterback who treats records like flies to be swatted is the right amount of smug. It’s as if he’s never left, you think, and then he cops to it: He doesn’t care a lick what you think.
“How can I say this without hurting anybody’s feelings?” Manning joked after the Broncos’ 29-10 win over Green Bay. “I just don’t give what y’all say that much merit.”
On Sunday night, Manning was comfortable, back atop the football world where he’s perched for much of his career. Despite not throwing a single touchdown pass, the quarterback set a season high in passing yards, with 340, and his sole (garbage-time) interception marked his fewest since Sept. 27 in Detroit. Add to that 101 rushing yards from C.J. Anderson and another 60 from Ronnie Hillman, and the Broncos’ offense, left for comatose if not dead, was positively humming.
“We’re not where we want to be yet,” Manning explained after the game. “We’re going to continue to grind. I’ve just been very determined, and I knew this was not going to be an easy transition, and I can’t say that a lot of what’s happened so far this season has been a surprise to me. … I expected hat there would be some rough times.”
And if any quarterback could predict the future, it would be Manning, whose mind is the game’s sharpest. If anyone in the league would be able to personally resurrect himself, well, same answer. But such things are impossible, no matter the narrative that will persist until that 39-year-old arm wings its next throw. Peyton is back. Peyton is Peyton again. This Broncos offense looks like itself of old. It’ll set more records yet. They’re easy, these takes, and good lord would the Broncos be the NFL’s best team if they’re true. But they don’t have to be, not necessarily.
But let’s rewind a moment from Manning’s ribbing. Let’s rewind back into the locker room, to Aqib Talib, jersey off, grass-stained game pants on, chunk of gold chains weighing down his neck. The cornerback’s voice is a human tornado siren, perfect for these sorts of in-your-face celebrations. He wants to be told how many yards to which he and his teammates held Aaron Rodgers (the answer: 50), even though he already knows. He wants to revel, to gloat, to peacock. He wants, and he will, and he deserves to.
No matter what Manning does next, be it lighting up the Colts in Indianapolis next week or crumbling back into his wobbly early-season self, he no longer defines these Broncos. He’s a good quarterback, a leader, the NFL’s oldest superstar who’s still fully capable of leading his team to the postseason if he can keep turnovers to a minimum and continue to adjust into Gary Kubiak’s offense. But consider that Rodgers had the worst night of his career on Sunday. Consider Eddie Lacy’s 38 yards rushing, Randall Cobb’s 27 yards receiving as he ran around in the backfield like some prayer of last resort. Sure, Jordy Nelson is missing, but these are offensive anomalies the likes of which mere mortal defenses cannot and do not achieve. “We gave up 50 yards,” Broncos cornerback Chris Harris said. “Anytime you do that, to any opponent—but that’s Aaron Rodgers. And we did that to him. That makes it even better.”
Going into Sunday’s game, Denver and Green Bay stood undefeated at 6-0, but the Broncos’ record seemed shakier. They’d beaten only two teams who finished Sunday with winning records, the 5-2 Vikings and 4-3 Raiders, and their offense sat squarely at the bottom of the NFL. Manning was lobbing interceptions more often than touchdown passes, and there was a sense that no matter how elite Denver’s defense, its offense might trip it up against a real opponent.
And the Packers seemed to be just that. Even without Nelson, Rodgers has been Rodgers, and Green Bay boasted the NFL’s best scoring defense heading into Sunday. That left the Broncos as home underdogs, the ultimate insult. “That pissed us off,” Harris said. “I’m not going to lie. That made us made. Being an underdog, undefeated, no. 1 defense at home? That’s more motivation. Thank you, Vegas.”
Talib offered his own explanation of the night, the kind of overblown statement the cornerback makes his name on, the kind that will be tested when the Patriots come to the Mile High City in four weeks. “Maybe we play to our competition,” he said. “Maybe that’s what this is. Best team? Second-best team? We going to beat them.”
These Broncos are a team that only recently learned what it feels like to not be mentioned among the NFL’s highest echelon, and they treat doubt the way DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller treat quarterbacks: with complete, utter, painful disrespect. These are the grown-up Broncos, their identity still tied to Manning but who're evolved beyond him. They’re ferocious. They’re a living, breathing hammer.
Two years ago, this team dropped jaws. Now, there’s no time to stare in awe. You’re already pancaked on the turf, gasping for air, and Peyton Manning says I told you so.