DENVER (AP)—Maddeningly meticulous and impeccably precise, this was Peyton Manning at his cruel best.
Skewering a Denver defense that was designed specifically to stop him, Manning led the Indianapolis Colts over, around and through the Broncos on Sunday, throwing for 345 yards and three touchdowns to Reggie Wayne for a message-sending 34-31 victory.
“When you play a guy like Peyton Manning, and the guy’s going to put it on there on the money, what can you do?” Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said.
Not much, as the Broncos (5-2) found out repeatedly, watching Manning lead the Colts to scores on seven of their final eight drives—the only miss coming when he kneeled on the ball to end the first half.
Manning’s final drive set up the winning points on a 37-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri with 2 seconds left. It made the Colts the first team to go 7-0 in consecutive seasons since the 1929-31 Green Bay Packers did it three straight times.
Manning made a mockery of Denver’s cushy zone defense. Wayne dissected it best, catching 10 passes for 138 yards, most of them in front of Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams.
It was Williams who Denver picked first in the 2005 draft, a defense-heavy class that was part of an ongoing effort by the Broncos to shore things up after 41-10 and 49-24 playoff losses at Indy in 2003 and ’04.
But the Broncos aren’t the only team that uses the offseason to get better. Manning’s work ethic is impeccable, and in a 2006 full of stops and starts, he was practically perfect against the team many thought would be Indy’s biggest challenger.
“When you’re throwing against Bailey and Williams, that’s why you work in April, May and June,” Manning said. “That’s why you throw a lot in the offseason, with nobody covering. You pretend it’s Champ Bailey covering. You have to throw a perfect throw and run a perfect route.”
The Colts gained 437 yards and fell 10 points short of matching what the Denver defense had allowed all season. The Broncos were being compared to the best of all time.
Instead, those comparisons seemed more apt for Manning, who went 32-for-39 for 345 yards with a passer rating of 129.2. He wasn’t intercepted, wasn’t sacked and probably won’t even need to send that white Colts uniform to the laundry room.
“He amazes me,” Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said. “Just his leadership qualities, and his sense of urgency, the way he reads defenses. He did a heck of a job today.”
Manning’s counterpart, the much-maligned Jake Plummer, won’t have to worry about losing his job this week. He did a super job matching Manning, leading a Denver offense that hadn’t scored 20 points all season. Plummer went 13-for-21 for 174 yards and a passer rating of 104.1. Rookie running back Mike Bell came off the bench for 136 yards and two scores, both career highs.
But this was one of those games where the team that has the ball last was going to win.
Wayne’s third touchdown gave Indy a 31-28 lead with 3:35 left. But when Bell answered immediately with a 48-yard run, it was obvious he might have done it too quickly. Indeed, the Broncos stalled at the Colts 30 with 1:49 to go and had to settle for a tying field goal. And then, it was Indy’s game to win.
Manning won it cruelly and efficiently, working the sidelines and finding every soft spot in the zone the Broncos used, and surprisingly stuck with, even as Indy’s yardage piled up.
The two big plays were Manning to Wayne for 14 yards and Manning to Wayne for 9 more—both catches made in front of Williams, who all week acknowledged this game was something of a referendum on his presence in Denver.
Williams didn’t make himself available for interviews after the game. Wayne did.
“I am not going to apologize to him,” Wayne said. “I’m going to work just like he’s going to work. When I’m out there, I just refuse to lose no matter who is on the other side of me. Like I said, my number was called today and he was on me.”
Vinatieri, brought to Indy to make kicks exactly like this, nailed his 19th game-winner in the final minute of regulation or in overtime to cap a 4-for-4 day. Denver’s desperation kickoff return went nowhere and the Broncos saw their 13-game, regular-season home winning streak ended.
Indy, meanwhile, re-established itself as the team to beat in the AFC, taking a two-game lead in the win column over Denver and all the closest contenders with the season nearing the halfway point.
Manning—well, he proved again that if it’s the Broncos standing between him and that elusive trip to the Super Bowl, he’ll be well-prepared.
“Remember when (Michael) Jordan was playing and he came into town and people stood outside the arena just to see him? That’s him,” Broncos defensive lineman Ebenezer Ekuban said. “He’s a phenomenal quarterback. The best quarterback I’ve faced in my eight years in the league.”
Joseph Addai ran for 93 yards for Indy, and Dallas Clark, the tight end who has long been tough for Denver to cover, finished with six catches for 68 yards. … Rod Smith moved past Hall of Famer Steve Largent into 12th place on the all-time receptions list with 821.