DENVER -- We should catalog all of this for posterity. Thursday night, against the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, Denver quarterback Peyton Manning tied Brett Favre’s NFL record for games with four touchdown passes. It was his 23rd such game. That’s a pretty impressive feat.
Thirteen minutes later, he tied Drew Brees for the NFL record of FIVE touchdown games. Seventh time he pulled that off. It has been an amazing career.
Thirty-four minutes later, he set the NFL record for most games with SIX touchdown passes. It was the third time he has done that in the regular season. Nobody else in NFL history can say that (though Tom Brady has also done it three times if you include the six-touchdown game he had against Denver in the playoffs in 2012).
And then, thirty-eight minutes later, Peyton Manning became the first quarterback in 44 years -- only the sixth ever -- to throw seven touchdown passes in a single game.
The final score was 49-27 Broncos, and there are a million questions about what it meant. Is the Ravens defense (sans their emotional leader Ray Lewis and their great safety Ed Reed) really this bad? Will newly acquired Wes Welker -- who fumbled a punt, dropped passes and caught two touchdowns -- give Denver fans indigestion all season? Will Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, with a Super Bowl MVP, a new contract and a new responsibility, emerge as a true superstar as many expect, or will he go back to overthrowing receivers with his incredible arm as he often did Thursday?
But, again, all those questions can wait. We should catalog all of this Peyton Manning awesomeness for posterity.
The first touchdown pass was classic Manning because it wasn’t the throw that made the play. Instead, the key seemed to be a fake pass to the right, one that shifted the entire defense, particularly Baltimore linebacker Darryl Smith. Denver tight end Julius Thomas ran down the middle of the field, wide open, and Manning waited until the last possible second to release the ball. Just as Baltimore’s Chris Canty drove a shoulder into Manning, he released a loopy but true pass to Thomas, who caught it at the 3 and sauntered in for the touchdown.
The referee then helped Manning up. He’s at that point in his career.
The second touchdown pass was also to Julius Thomas. This time Manning looked left for Thomas all the way. Thomas was matched up with Baltimore free safety Michael Huff, and Thomas easily got inside position and that made the throw almost too easy -- absolute pitch and catch. Strong safety James Ihedigbo raced over to make the big hit, but he missed Thomas almost entirely, and he breezed into the end zone.
“We gave him too many open guys,” Baltimore coach John Harbaugh would grumble after the game.
The third touchdown pass was a beautiful throw – you know, Manning is one of the greatest passers in NFL history, but people throughout the NFL have repeatedly made the point to me that he does not have the pure passing talent of some of the other greats. They say: He does not have Dan Marino’s supernatural release or Tom Brady’s ability to make all the passes or Joe Montana’s almost freaky accuracy or John Unitas’ extraordinary talent for the moment.
But nobody has ever understood offensive football better than Manning. No quarterback has ever worked harder on perfecting every little detail of being a quarterback. And, his release is plenty fast, his arm plenty strong, his accuracy fantastic, his sense for the moment pretty impressive. He looked left again, knew immediately he was going for Andre Caldwell down the sideline. He lofted a perfect pass over Baltimore cornerback Jimmy Smith, who was plainly beat. Caldwell bobbled and held on as he ran into the end zone.
The fourth touchdown pass was a quick out to his newest weapon, Wes Welker. What a weird day for Welker. He came to the stadium for his first game as a Broncos receiver, and already lots of people were wearing his jersey. He promptly fumbled a punt and dropped a couple of passes. “I thought he did a great job putting that behind him,” Manning would say. Welker, for a guy who struggled to find a college scholarship and was not drafted by an NFL team and is now 31 years old, still has this absurd knack for getting open. This time he got open at the two yard line, caught the quick pass, cut back past a sliding Ravens cornerback Corey Graham, and he was in the end zone.
The fifth touchdown was to Welker too, and he was wide open. Manning rolled right, and it looked like Baltimore’s Ladarius Webb simply lost Welker. There’s something else about the genius of Peyton Manning – he rarely fails to find the open receiver. This one was easy, Manning flipped the ball to Welker for Touchdown No. 5.
The sixth touchdown pass was vintage Manning. He stepped to the line, knew exactly what he was going to do before the snap. He took two steps back, and threw a slightly wobbly but assured pass high and to the right, toward receiver DeMaryius Thomas, who is 6-foot-3. Corey Graham, who was trying to stay with Thomas, is 6-foot even. Manning can do a little with that height difference. There was a little pushing between receiver and corner, Thomas worked behind Graham, the ball was high where only he could catch it. He did catch it. And that was the sixth.
And the last touchdown pass? Well, the credit for that one has to go to Denver linebacker Danny Trevathan, who seemed to put the game away when he intercepted Flacco and raced alone toward the end zone. He raced in. He did a little dance for the screaming crowd. It seemed to make the score 49-17.
Unfortunately, Trevathan dropped the ball before he made it into the end zone. It was one of the knucklehead plays that will make Trevathan unforgettable – but more than that it set up history for Peyton Manning. The Ravens, given the ball back, drove down the field to score a touchdown. Shortly after, they added a field goal. That made the score cosmetically close, which meant that on third down Manning was going to try and throw to pick up the first down.
Manning threw a quick out to DeMaryius Thomas, who caught it in stride and headed up field. No Ravens defenders were in front of him. None. One was sealed off beautifully by, that man again, Wes Welker. Another was knocked out of the way by hustling tackle Ryan Clady. And DeMaryius Thomas ran untouched for 78 yards, the historic touchdown.
“That was a beautiful thing to watch,” Manning would say.
Joe Kapp was the last quarterback to throw seven touchdowns in a game -- he did it in 1969 against a different Baltimore team, the Colts. Y.A. Tittle and now Manning are the only quarterbacks to throw seven touchdowns without throwing an interception. Tittle did that in 1962. George Blanda threw seven touchdown passes in the second season of the old AFL. Sid Luckman did it for the Bears in 1943, when World War II was raging. And a fairly obscure quarterback named Adrian Burk threw seven for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1954 – three of his touchdown passes were to the Hall of Fame receiver Pete Pihos.
Interesting side note: Burk later became an NFL official, and he was back judge the day that Joe Kapp threw seven touchdown passes.
Anyway, as great as those performances were, Manning’s was different. The game is different. Defenses are different. The violence is different. The speed is different. Manning afterward seemed a bit numb by it all. He talked about how it took him a little while to get into the game (it was delayed by more than a half hour because of a threat of lightning). He talked about how well his offensive line played. He said it really had not sunk in yet.
“You never know what’s going to happen in a game,” he said, and this is especially true when Peyton Manning is at quarterback.