In a league where hype is the order of the day, there’s never any shortage of “statement” games.
And because of its spot late in the NFL calendar, Week 16 offered more than most. A baker’s dozen worth of teams had the chance to have some say about their playoff positions. The Saints had to prove they could win a big game away from New Orleans, the Dolphins to show their shaky resurgence was for real, the Cowboys to demonstrate enough grit so coach Jason Garrett could keep his job, and the Patriots that they could stay at the top despite a team photo that at times has resembled an X-ray.
So naturally, Peyton Manning stole the show.
The 37-year-old quarterback not only broke the single-season record for touchdown passes with No. 51; once he finally got his hands on the record ball, Manning also got off the quote of the weekend, chiding teammate Julius Thomas for not taking better care of the prized possession after he caught it.
“Wouldn’t have surprised me if he handed it to some babe up in the stands and tried to get her phone number in exchange for the ball. That’d be right up Julius‘ alley,” Manning deadpanned. “That’s pretty in line with his thinking often times.”
To be fair, neither the four touchdown passes nor the 37-13 final score against the lowly Texans was surprising. Denver had already locked up a playoff spot and Manning already had 47 TD passes this season. But a win at Houston, coupled with a loss by AFC West rival Kansas City, meant the division title, a first-round bye and at least the No. 2 seed in the conference.
The Chiefs did their part, falling at home to the Colts. Yet right around the time the Broncos should have been pulling away, they went flat. Despite rolling up 355 yards in the first half, Denver’s lead at intermission was just 16-6, then 16-13 a minute and a half into the third quarter. The Broncos’ offense suffered through as bad a period as it’s had since Manning arrived: three three-and-outs, four punts and exactly 38 yards.
Asked about it afterward, coach John Fox reminded everyone the guys on the other sideline get paid, too.
“These things are all hard. … Each one of these is a new test, very difficult. You’re always playing against good players, guys that are good coaches.”
Easier to pinpoint was the play that turned it around _ Mike Adams intercepted a Matt Schaub pass less than a minute into the fourth, giving Denver possession at the Houston 28. Two plays later, Manning hit Eric Decker for a 10-yard TD. Soon after came the style points.
“Everyone was asking why we weren’t running the ball,” Adams recalled, “and I was like, `Yo, the record baby, the record.’”
As the clock ticked down, the only competitive question left was who would catch the record throw. For all the influence Manning has had on this latest group of teammates in just two seasons _ intense preparation, hard work and attention to detail _ it’s easy to overlook how much he challenges teammates to match his effort.
“I had an idea it was coming,” Decker said about catching No. 50. “I was making sure I was in the right spot because if I wasn’t there, and didn’t have a chance to catch it, I would’ve heard about it.”
But just to be sure, Decker scooped up the record ball that Thomas caught, too, and tucked it inside his jersey for safekeeping.
“I dropped the ball so fast to do my usual thing,” Thomas admitted, “and I was like, `Why did Deck pick the ball up so fast?’”
Old pro that he is, Manning celebrated briefly with teammates, then spread around the credit the same way he keeps his receivers happy. He praised past great Dan Marino, current rival Tom Brady, nearly every coach on staff by name, his receivers, running backs, offensive line and defense, as well as the doctors and trainers who helped him heal and then recover from four neck surgeries in the last few years.
Among the people who wondered whether he’d ever touch those old heights was Manning himself. If this statement wasn’t enough, well, check back in when the league’s Most Valuable Player award is announced.
“I think it’s well documented that this is the second chapter of my career and didn’t know what to expect off that injury and new team, new players and new physical state after an injury. So I had no idea what to expect. … When something like this happens,” Manning said, “it just reminds me even more of how grateful and thankful I am for a lot of people that have helped me during this second chapter.”
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.