DENVER -- The very first pass Peyton Manning threw in Denver seems a long time ago now -- two years, a few neck procedures and a crushing playoff loss separating the toss that nosedived into the ground at Coors Field during a private throwing session and all the ones he completed just a few miles away Thursday night.
When that pass to his friend Todd Helton was attempted in secret because Manning didn't want anyone to see his condition back then -- before he was released by the Indianapolis Colts, before he resurrected his career last season with the Denver Broncos -- it was hard to imagine what was to become of Manning's dazzling career, let alone his improbable spot now. But here Peyton stands, with an offense so loaded with playmakers that only lightning could stall it in the season opener, with touch and vision so precise that he could throw seven touchdown passes even when the flight of the ball sometimes wobbled. The Broncos blew out the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens 49-27 in the season opener Thursday night, but even as coach John Fox admitted that there was an extra bit of motivation attached to beating the team that stunned the Broncos in the playoffs on a frigid January day, this performance was about more than something as small as revenge.
That was about what happened in the past, and Manning has shown little patience for discussing that lately, as if he knows time is draining away and reflection absorbs too much of it. This, then, was foreshadowing, a glimpse of what an arsenal that is arguably equal to the best Manning had in Indianapolis is capable of. For all of his accomplishments and acclaim, Manning had never thrown seven touchdown passes before. Nobody had since Joe Kapp did it in 1969, and when Manning thought about Kapp Thursday night, he recalled what Kapp might be better known for now.
"Great Canadian quarterback out of Cal. Kicked the crap out of a guy on YouTube a couple of years ago, too," Manning said.
Which is something like what Manning and his fleet of pass catchers did to the Ravens. Even with the flat start, Manning completed 27 of his 42 attempts for 462 yards and threw touchdown passes to four different players. Once the lightning was gone and the rhythm arrived, the Broncos slipped into the groove they hope to carry through the season, speeding up the plays, going from first to second down and then to a first down again, wearing down defenses with their relentlessness (Wes Welker said it gassed the Broncos, too), with the daunting task of trying to figure out who to cover and how. The Ravens' rebuilt defense -- which, if nothing else, looked faster than last year's championship version -- did not have an answer. The New York Giants will scramble to find one next.
Much of the preseason attention was focused on the trio of 1,000-yard receivers Manning now boasts, and so the two touchdown passes to Welker -- you could almost hear Tom Brady's teeth gnashing if you listened closely -- and the two to Demaryius Thomas, including a 78-yarder on a bubble screen, were not unexpected. (Eric Decker had two receptions but no touchdowns.) The scoring plays that will haunt the film study of defensive coordinators, though, were the unexpected ones. The one to Andre Caldwell. And most daunting, the two to tight end Julius Thomas -- "Orange Julius" will surely catch on -- as part of a 110-yard night for him. Thomas is in the third year of his injury-truncated career, a converted college basketball player who played just one year of football at Portland State. He caught one pass, stopped short to elude the defender, then ran down the sideline for a 44-yard gain. On the next play, Manning hit him on the left hash for a 23-yard touchdown. And when it was over, it was Thomas, at 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, whom Manning focused on as the player who is likely to bedevil opponents.
"It will be interesting to see how teams play Julius all season," Manning said, smiling. "He's a big guy, he definitely makes teams have a conversation, and that is what you want. You want guys that make teams have a discussion, 'How are we going to handle this guy?' "
Manning is 37 now, the age John Elway was when he won the first of his two Super Bowls with the Broncos. He has accomplished so much, has proven that he is healthy again, that even the milestones do not seem to move him. He had thrown six touchdown passes twice before, and after his sixth touchdown pass -- his sixth -- Manning trudged toward the bench, stopping to smack hands with Demaryius Thomas, as if this were a summer practice.
"It didn't seem like that many," Welker said later. "You're just sitting there like 'That was seven?' because he goes nonchalantly about it, just throwing seven touchdown passes."
Manning, of course, has had these sterling regular seasons before, only to fall achingly short of the only goal he really cherishes. Elway has surrounded him with more receiving talent than Elway himself played with, in the hopes of securing another title for Manning in the time he has left. But it was Julius Thomas, the most inexperienced player Manning is relying on, who made plain that Thursday was just the beginning, that even if Denver players were joking that Manning's seven touchdowns felt like something out of a Madden video game, none of it should be surprising when considering the Broncos for the season.
"It went like we all thought it was going to go," the 25-year-old tight end said. "The whole offseason we've been talking about how many different weapons we have, and I think we were able to display that today."
It was a little more than a year ago that Manning thought it would make a neat story during Super Bowl week to tell of the time his pass to Helton landed in the dirt, a pass so bad that Helton thought Manning was joking. Manning didn't get the chance to bring his recovery story full circle last season, and much attention is already focused on whether he is stronger now than he was in 2012, whether age will weaken him if injury did not. On Thursday, though, as one touchdown pass after another fluttered through the warm night, that chilly loss to the Ravens seemed to be consigned to the same pile of painful memories as the pass to Helton already was.
The record book will say that Manning was never better than on Thursday. The receivers suggest better might still be to come.