DENVER -- Perhaps the most relieved person in Denver on Sunday night -- after Peyton Manning -- was Joe Horrigan, the longtime spokesman for the Pro Football Hall of Fame who was charged with bringing back the football that Manning would throw for his 509th touchdown pass. Horrigan began the night wondering how many more games he would have to follow Manning before he broke Brett Favre's career mark, and worrying that an exuberant wide receiver might heave the ball into the stands in celebration.
None of that happened, of course. Manning's record-setter looked as routine and ordinary as the previous 508, an 8-yard pass to the right front corner of the end zone where Demaryius Thomas hauled it in while keeping his toes in bounds. That it came on third down, one play after Manning faceplanted after tripping over a teammate's leg seemed somehow fitting. Manning has never been heralded for his grace, but for his precision, for his extraordinary control of the game from the line of scrimmage -- when he finally does leave the stage, he will take that power with him -- for his fealty to the practices he still loves, the grind he still embraces.
"I wasn't feeling real great on that third down, a missed throw, a missed standing up," Manning said. "They dropped eight in coverage, which can be tough. That whole series was something I'll always remember."
It was most important to Manning that his touchdowns -- he wound up throwing four, the same number of incompletions he had -- came in a 42-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers. The Broncos' offense looked as fluid as it did in 2013 for the first time in 2014 against a team that had gone 14 games on the road, including the preseason, without yielding more than two touchdown passes in a game. With Denver's rebuilt and swarming defense harassing Colin Kaepernick, the Broncos were so completely in charge that Manning sat out the entire fourth quarter. He looked a little out of place on the sideline in his orange visor with nothing to do but if this was the possible Super Bowl preview it was heralded to be, it bodes well for Manning to finally remove the only possible criticism of his career.
Back when Manning's passes were nosediving into the ground so badly that his friend, Todd Helton, thought he was joking, it was impossible to imagine that just three years after his arm strength withered with his damaged neck, hundreds of people sitting in the Denver end zone would provide a twinkly backdrop to his record by having their cellphone flashes ready to go.
Horrigan, like everyone else, wondered if Manning would ever be able to play again after four neck surgeries and his release. But as Manning threw his first two touchdowns in quick succession Sunday night, it was clear that that fear was as unfounded as the worry about the whereabouts of the cherished football. Before Horrigan stuffed it into a purple shopping bag for the trip to Canton, it was used by Manning's teammates to play a giddy game of keepaway from Manning -- a game, Thomas revealed, that Manning himself orchestrated on Friday. Manning, ever the prepared one, had his receivers practice the prank that would be pulled on himself -- and the national television audience -- presumably right around the time Friday afternoon that Manning and offensive coordinator Adam Gase also installed in the game plan the play that resulted in Wes Welker catching one of Manning's touchdown passes Sunday. Welker, of course, is one of the players the Broncos had acquired to surround Manning since he arrived, bolstering the quarterback's chances not just for more records, but for more championships in the waning years of his career.
"I just discussed this with some family and friends this week, I certainly didn't even think this would be a possibility a couple of years ago," Manning said. "I am very grateful to the Broncos for welcoming me to their organization and for helping me."
Manning now holds the single-season touchdown record and the career record, and there isn't much indication that, at 38, the end is upon him. Perhaps the most remarkable subtlety of his second act in Denver is that his three seasons here have been more efficient and productive -- meaning his touchdown percentage per pass is higher -- than in all but one of his seasons in Indianapolis.
Thomas said when Manning first arrived, he watched as Manning changed the way the Broncos did things -- from running routes to watching film. It has made, Thomas said, everyone around Manning better. And, Thomas said, he is convinced Manning is the best quarterback to play. That is a debate that will follow Manning, and that football that Horrigan stowed in his bag, to the Hall of Fame.
"I'm very humbled and I'm very honored," Manning said. "I've always been a fan of quarterbacks. Whether Brett Favre, Dan Marino, John Elway. It's a pretty unique club. I can put it in some perspective and I have a great appreciation for it."