Manning operated Denver's offense at a rare level, even if it was against the hapless Raiders. (Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
This was a blowout before it even started.
The Oakland Raiders proved to be spirited opponents, but they were completely overmatched by the Denver Broncos, who moved to 3-0 on the season, as Peyton Manning became the first quarterback since Michael Vick in 2010 to throw at least 12 touchdown passes before his first interception. Manning has now also thrown more touchdown passes through the first three games of a season than any other quarterback in NFL history, beating Tom Brady's record in 2011. At the end of the first half, Manning had thrown 21 completions in 24 attempts for 264 yards and three scores, and he finished with 32 completions in 37 attempts in the Broncos' 37-21 win. It was among Manning's most surgical performances against an Oakland defense that seemed to know whatever it did would be wrong.
Still, Manning was dissatisfied with the little things that went wrong on his end -- clearly, he's not the guy who was grateful to be back in the game last season after missing the entire 2011 campaign with neck and shoulder injuries. Now, Manning seeks perfection, and he'll be damned if he doesn't get it.
"You see flashes of good things; we're executing and not making mistakes -- we can go the distance," Manning told ESPN's Lisa Salters after the game. "We can go 80 yards, and we can certainly take advantage of a short field, but you still see some mistakes. We can't have it. Turnovers ... penalties in short-yardage situations ... we can't have it. Those are the things we have to iron out."
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Though Manning is playing as well as he's ever done, credit must also be given to offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who is lining the Broncos up in more varied formations than his veteran quarterback has ever had at his disposal. For years with the Indianapolis Colts, Manning poured his football genius into a series of checks and audibles at the line in a relatively vanilla series of three-wide, single-back calls. Now, he's even smarter, and more exacting, and Gase matches that with a dizzying array of formations that has proven impossible to stop when it's rolling the right way.
"The biggest difference is the pace, the tempo," Broncos receiver Eric Decker said of his team's new, expanded playbook. "We can go three tight ends, or three wide receivers. And if you can move the ball with all those formations, it just helps you to be successful."
Manning is playing chess while everyone else is playing checkers, but he's still looking for more.
"That's not necessarily true," he told Salters, when she complimented him on his in-game brilliance, "It still comes down to execution. Oakland's got good cover corners, and they mix up their coverages well, but our guys did a good job of getting open versus man [coverage] and finding holes in the zones."
Without question, Decker was the star among Manning's many targets in this game, catching eight passes for 133 yards and a touchdown, but Demaryius Thomas was right behind him with 10 catches for 94 yards. Wes Welker and Julius Thomas each caught touchdown passes, and when you look at this receiver corps from a distance, it has the chance to be the best Manning's ever had.
"I thought we did a good job against Oakland, because they disguise [coverages] well," Decker said. "They play a lot of 2-man coverage, and Peyton will just follow the open guy and put us in situations to do well. "
...but Terrelle Pryor showed a few things despite constant pressure. (Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
As for the Raiders, there were brief glimpses of encouragement -- but one of them came at the game's most important position. Given his first real chance to be a starter in the NFL this season, quarterback Terrelle Pryor impressed more than many would have expected. He finished the game with 19 completions in 28 attempts for 281 yards and a touchdown. He also received a concussion late in the game when he was trying to make too much happen on his own in the red zone, and was whacked by Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard.
Still a work in progress, no doubt, but Pryor did display some of the characteristics of a quarterback with some nascent potential. Always a "great athlete" with all the typecasting that term usually brings, he improved his throwing mechanics in the offseason by working with performance coaches George Whitfield. Steve Clarkson, and Craig Austin, and that was evident at certain times. He used his running ability to make downfield throws when the pocket dissolved, and stood in the pocket to make plays with authority when the Raiders' patchwork offensive line could actually create functional space for the third-year veteran.
The most impressive play on the Raiders' side was the 73-yard touchdown pass from Pryor to receiver Denarius Moore with 5:57 left in the second quarter. Moore got in front of cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and safety Duke Ihenacho, and beat them both with the ball, running uncontested down the field for the score.
“It was just Terrelle sitting in the pocket and nobody was getting open," Moore said. "I saw the safety coming in a little bit out of the corner of my eye, so I broke off my route and turned it up the field. It gave us some confidence that we were still able to move the ball, even with times like that, and coming back play after play and believing in ourselves.”
However, the rough spots were just as evident for Pryor and the offense. Pryor has not yet set his decision-making process to the speed required by the NFL, and he holds on to the ball too long as a result. It would help if his receivers could separate, but this chicken-or-the-egg question is just one of many that bedevils the Raiders as they continue a complete and total franchise overhaul.
There is no overhaul for the Broncos. They've won 14 regular-season games in a row, and Manning's regular-season stats since he came to the Mile High City before the 2012 season are absolutely ridiculous: 489 completions in 705 attempts for 5,802 yards, 49 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. Now, there's only one thing for Manning and the Broncos to do if they want to complete this story the right way, and that's to win the first Super Bowl for the franchise since the John Elway era.
Right now, it would be foolish to bet too hard against them.