Peyton Manning threw for 310 yards, including his 30th scoring pass of the season. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)
The Denver Broncos' season turned, suddenly and definitively toward the AFC West title, when they rallied from a 24-point halftime deficit to stun the Chargers on Oct. 15. For Peyton Manning, though, the transformation began in earnest two Sundays earlier against the Oakland Raiders.
Manning threw interceptions on the Broncos' first three possessions in a Week 2 loss to Atlanta, then struggled again the next week as Houston won in Denver.
But Manning flipped the switch in Week 4 against Oakland -- he completed nearly 80 percent of his passes (30-for-38) and fired three touchdowns in a 37-6 win. Thursday night, he haunted the reeling Raiders again, throwing for 310 yards and a TD as Denver cruised to a 26-13 win.
"We can build off of each win, and I feel like we have made some improvements each week," Manning told the NFL Network. "We're still looking for that perfect four-quarter, 60-minute game."
The Broncos might not be playing flawless ball -- and, as Manning pointed out, that's probably for the best since their playoff opener is a month away. They have won eight straight anyway, to run away with the AFC West, and are in the mix for a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Football experts and Broncos fans spent the early weeks of the 2012 season wondering if Manning would be able to rediscover his old form, after sitting out all of 2011 with a neck injury.
How silly does that seem now?
Manning, at 36 and playing for a new team, is on pace to finish a mere nine yards shy of his career-best passing yardage total (4,700, set in 2010). Weeks 2 and 3 were a little shaky, but this could go down as the best regular season of his career, a potential fifth MVP win well within reach.
And in case you've forgotten what an incredible career it has been, Manning completed his 5,000th pass Thursday night.
"It's certainly great having a guy like Peyton Manning, probably one of the best to play his position," Von Miller said on the NFL Network's postgame show. "Having him on your team really takes a lot of stress off of everybody."
The Denver team that Manning inherited was not exactly the '76 Buccaneers or '08 Lions, mind you -- they won the AFC West and a playoff game last season, during the height of Tebowmania. Even if Manning is the catalyst that turns a solid team into an elite one, it's far from a one-man show.
Miller, perhaps the leader in the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year race, deserves to share some of the billing.
He was his usual, unblockable self against Oakland Thursday, consistently making his way into Carson Palmer's hip pocket. The Broncos' second-year star also delivered the dagger to the Raiders' chances with 5:45 left in the third quarter. Carson Palmer dropped back to throw on 3rd-and-6 from his own 12 and Miller whipped past Khalif Barnes for a sack (his 16th of the season) and forced fumble (his sixth). Mitch Unrein recovered on the Oakland 2, setting up a Knowshon Moreno touchdown that upped Denver's lead to 23-7.
"It was the same thing we've been thinking all game, we've got to get after the quarterback," Miller said, "and that play was no different."
Oh, let's not forget about Moreno either. After the Broncos benched him for eight consecutive games in the middle of the season, he stepped into the starting lineup in Week 12 to replace an injured Willis McGahee and revitalized his career.
He had 167 total yards Thursday, including 119 on the ground -- his first 100-yard rushing performance since Dec. 5, 2010, and his only time crossing into triple digits on the ground against a team other than the Chiefs.
"I gotta give him a lot of credit," said Manning of Moreno. "He's been riding the scout team for the majority of the season ... he steps right in. Our offense is always evolving, we're changing things each week, so he's had to learn on the run.
"He's done a heck of a job in pass protection, receiving out of the backfield and he ran really well tonight."
The Broncos sit at 10-3 and, at least for the moment, hold the No. 2 seed in the AFC West (9-3 Baltimore and New England play Sunday and Monday, respectively). They've lapped Oakland, too -- the host Raiders fell to 3-10 with a seventh loss in a row, as a national-TV audience witnessed how far their rebuilding project is from completion.
Denver can relate. The Broncos finished just 4-12 in 2010, before bouncing back in 2011. That success convinced them that they were close, that rolling the dice on Manning was worth the risk.
A sluggish start led to some second guessing. Turns out, though, that Manning only needed a little extra time to find his groove.
Now that he has, there may be no stopping the Broncos.