ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Mike Tomlin needed only two words to describe the guy who ripped apart the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense in the Mile High City.
“He’s Peyton,” the coach said with a shrug.
He’s Peyton Manning – and he’s back.
The former Indianapolis Colts star wasn’t about to let a 20-month layoff for neck surgery wreck his opening night debut with the Denver Broncos on Sunday.
Using the no-huddle, the four-time MVP led the Broncos on a trio of 80-yard touchdown drives and kept Ben Roethlisberger’s troops guessing until the final whistle in a 31-19 victory.
Manning, who bid a tearful farewell to the Colts on March 7 when they cut him so they could begin anew with Andrew Luck, showed during the preseason that his right arm and neck were plenty strong. This, after missing all of last season with a nerve injury that weakened his throwing arm.
If anyone still wondered about his health six months after he switched teams in the biggest free agent move in NFL history, Manning delivered a resounding answer:
His 71-yard touchdown throw to Demaryius Thomas, Manning’s first as a Bronco was also the 400th of his career. Manning reached the milestone in his 208th career game. Dan Marino did it in his 227th game and Brett Favre in his 228th.
“I’ve seen improvement every time he’s gone out, going back to the beginning of preseason” and even before that, coach John Fox said.
“Physically, mentally, him adjusting to new teammates, new coaches, I think he’s been tremendous.”
Receiver Brandon Stokley and tight end Jacob Tamme, who played with Manning in Indianapolis, helped him against Pittsburgh. And neither of them saw anything different in Manning 2.0.
“He has put in so much work that you expect him to come out here and play well,” Tamme said.
“Knowing the guy, what kind of competitor he is, I never doubted for once that he would be playing again,” Stokley said. “I knew he’d be back.”
Manning completed 19 of 26 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns – and a game ball.
“Hey, it was a great win, it’s an honor to play football with you guys,” Manning told his teammates in a jubilant locker room afterward. “Unbelievable team effort ... It sure was a great start, let’s keep it going.”
Despite getting off to a fine start in Denver, Manning insists his rehabilitation and his transition to his new surroundings are both season-long works in progress.
“I’m still feeling my way out, I still have some limitations,” Manning insisted. “This team is still forming its identity. As you’re feeling yourself out, feeling your team out and you get a win in that process, that’s a nice thing.”
The Broncos installed a power passing game this summer after turning the NFL upside-down last season when they dusted off the old read-option offense to fit Tim Tebow’s unique skill set.
Now that Manning’s in Denver and Tebow’s in New York, the Broncos are balanced again, running the ball 27 times and throwing it 26 Sunday night.
Manning and the Broncos started out slowly before turning to the no-huddle, which led to three long TD drives. They were so efficient that they didn’t even falter when Roethlisberger took an incredible 44 snaps to Manning’s three during one stretch spanning the second and third quarters.
One of those three was a kneel-down at the half, another a 9-yard pass to Eric Decker and the third one a toss in the left flat to Thomas, who turned upfield and weaved his way for a 71-yard score.
It was Thomas who beat the Steelers in the AFC wild-card game eight months earlier when he caught a perfect pass from Tebow on a crossing pattern and raced 80 yards into the end zone on the first play of overtime.
“It’s kind of similar,” Thomas said, “but not quite the same.”
The best defense for Manning in the opener was Roethlisberger, who kept his counterpart cooling his cleats on the sideline.
“Wasn’t much fun sitting on the bench there all night,” Manning said. “... You get up to warm up, kind of getting ready and see them on a third-and-15 and thinking you’re about to go out there and he converts it and you go back and sit down.”
Manning was magnificent when he did get into the game and dusted off the no-huddle. He didn’t exactly run it at breakneck speed, mind you. The Broncos ran it to keep Pittsburgh from its usual situational substitutions.
Manning actually used as much of the play clock as he could, all the while decoding defenders’ intentions, calling audibles and putting on that famous show of gyrations, finger-pointing and foot-stomping that were staples of his game in Indy.
“The no-huddle’s something I know Peyton has a lot of confidence in, a lot of background in,” Fox said. “He did a good job of eating clock in the no-huddle. It wasn’t a hurry-up no-huddle per se, but I think it kind of puts the defense on their heels a little bit.”
Manning avoided many big hits, too, getting the ball out quickly. Running back Knowshon Moreno was beaten on both of Manning’s sacks, one of them coming when he was left trying to block two pass-rushers.
“We just couldn’t get to Peyton,” Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel lamented. “He was getting the ball out quick.”
Same as always.