KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- If you want to know how much Peyton Manning has left in his tank, just consider these lasting images in the moments that followed Denver's 31-24 win over Kansas City. Broncos cornerback Chris Harris stood before a throng of fans near the Chiefs' sideline, beating his chest and yelling to the heavens. Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas jogged down the Kansas City sideline with his right index finger raised high and a gleaming smile stretched across his face. Finally, there were Chiefs cornerbacks Phillip Gaines and Marcus Peters. They sat on their bench forlornly as their teammates solemnly trudged back to the locker room.
Every player on the Chiefs was reminded of the warning that was repeated to them all week: Don't make the mistake of counting Manning out. That was the theme of the last few days as many skeptics openly questioned the quarterback's arm strength and his ability to fit into a new offense that would be more conservative than anything he'd ever run. After Thursday's game, it feels like a new narrative should be making the rounds in NFL circles. It's one that focuses on how deceiving first impressions can be and how much fire still ruminates deep in Manning's heart.
Make no mistake, Manning wasn't the only reason the Broncos won a sloppy game that was both confounding and compelling. But his 19-yard touchdown pass to Emmanuel Sanders did tie the game with 40 seconds left, right before Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby returned a Jamaal Charles fumble 21 yards for the deciding score.
"The talk doesn't really get to me," Manning said when asked what this latest performance should say about his current skills. "A lot of other people told me about it but I don't read a lot of papers or watch a lot of TV. I had friends and teammates who got angry about it and let me know they were angry. It's nice when teammates have your back but I stay away from summaries (of careers) after one game. Let me play two or three or 16 first."
It would've been impossible for Manning to not hear the laments about his sudden decline over the last week. Even though the Broncos pulled out a 19-13 win over Baltimore, they didn't score an offensive touchdown. The consensus was that Manning looked uncomfortable in the new run-heavy system installed by first-year head coach Gary Kubiak. His numbers -- 175 passing yards and one interception -- literally resembled statistics that Tim Tebow would've produced during his glory days in Denver.
Thursday night offered a far different story for Manning. He still had some difficult moments (such as when Chiefs rookie cornerback Marcus Peters returned a second-quarter interception 55 yards for a touchdown) but he also came alive when his team needed him most. He threw two scoring passes late in the first half to erase a 14-point deficit. He also controlled the game in the second half, right before he led Denver on that 80-play drive that resulted in Sanders' touchdown catch.
There was no hint of fluttering passes in those moments. Manning fired his throws into tight coverage and operated with the confidence of a superstar who was totally in his element. "It was put-up-or-shut-up time for our offense at the end," said Thomas. "We didn't want to hear all the talk over the weekend about how we couldn't get it done again. You get tired of people talking about how the Broncos' offense can't do this or that. Everybody wanted to count Peyton out but he showed what he can do tonight."
Thomas added something else that shouldn't be lightly regarded. He made a point of saying the Broncos were at their best during the final offensive drive because, as he put it, "we were going back to something we knew." That was a blatant reference to the high-octane, hurry-up offense that Manning had been running since he signed with Denver in 2012. The same system that was tailor-made for his skill set and eventually led to the Broncos scoring an NFL-record 606 points in 2013.
Kubiak has made it clear that he doesn't want to run that offense on a full-time basis. After all, he was the Broncos offensive coordinator when his boss, team general manager John Elway, won two Super Bowls in the late 1990s largely because running back Terrell Davis emerged as a star. Here's the news flash for Kubiak: Neither C.J. Anderson nor Ronnie Hillman are going to morph into anything close to what Davis gave Denver back in the day. At this stage, the Broncos' defense -- which forced five turnovers against Kansas City -- is the only asset this team can count on for impressive performances on a weekly basis.
So it might be time for Kubiak to think long and hard about allowing Manning to do more of what he's been used to during his career. The quarterback certainly looked more comfortable when the urgency increased and he even said that "it felt like recess" when he connected with Thomas three times on the final drive. Let's also not forget that the Broncos' rebuilt offensive line, which gave up three sacks, remains a work in progress. As Manning showed in moments of duress, he still can take pressure off that group by getting the ball out fast and making sure it lands in the right places.
Kubiak acknowledged as much when asked if he was concerned about Manning after Week 1. "I've watched him prepare and practice," Kubiak said. "If we get better around him, we'll be fine. We have to get better up front, running the ball, all those things that take some things off his shoulders. We know he can still do this but we need to get more help around him. I promise that he can still do the job."
Those words would've sounded pretty empty only a few days ago. That's how disappointing the Broncos appeared in a game that they ultimately won against Baltimore. On Thursday night, Kubiak's comments should've been far more worrisome to the rest of the AFC West. They basically suggested that things were changing for the better, that this was no longer a question of whether Manning could still get things done.
Of course, that doesn't mean the Broncos will coast to a fourth consecutive division title with Manning. The Chiefs are still quite formidable, even if this is their seventh-straight loss to Denver (and 14 out of 15 to Manning throughout the quarterback's career). What this does say is that people need to pump the brakes before writing the obituary on Manning's career. If Thursday night taught us anything, it's that time really is still working in his favor.