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Is Peyton Manning the greatest quarterback who has ever played?
He just may have put together the greatest regular season a quarterback has ever had after he broke Tom Brady’s single-season touchdown passing record Sunday while leading the Broncos to a 37-13 victory against the spunky but woefully slumping Houston Texans.
Before a Reliant Stadium gathering of 71,761, Manning threw for an even 400 yards and four touchdowns — but it’s his 51 touchdown passes and 5,211 passing yards for the season that will stir discussions about his place among the quarterback greats.
Manning entered the game with 47 touchdown passes, but connected with Demaryius Thomas for a 36-yard strike on the first play of the second quarter, added two more to Eric Decker in the fourth quarter, then was mobbed on the field by his teammates after he set the record with a 25-yard touchdown pass to tight end Julius Thomas.
Manning is also is only 265 passing yards shy of Drew Brees’ record set in 2011.
To Manning, the game was a coronation of sorts to his brilliant 16-year career. To the Broncos, it meant rest for the battered and bruised.
The victory improved their record to 12-3. Coupled with the Kansas City Chiefs’ home loss Sunday to the Indianapolis Colts, the Broncos clinched their third consecutive AFC West title and a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Guaranteed the No. 2 AFC seed, the Broncos’ can clinch the No. 1 spot if they win next week at Oakland, or if New England loses one of its final two games.
Either way, the Broncos won’t have to play in the playoffs’ first round Jan. 4-5 to advance to the second round on Jan. 11-12.
As Broncos fans well remember, the team earned a first-round bye as the No. 1 seed last season. And it didn’t work out so well.
The difference this year is the Broncos need the break. Last season, the Broncos finished with an 11-game winning streak and the week off might have killed their momentum.
This season, the Broncos lost in week 15 against San Diego and they might have lost Miller in week 16 to a significant knee injury. Miller will undergo tests Monday, but there is fear his injury is significant.
Already, the Broncos have lost defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, but there is hope the added week off will help safety Rahim Moore, defensive end Derek Wolfe and slot receiver Wes Welker return from their injuries.
The Broncos led 16-6 and Manning already had piled up 296 passing yards by halftime. The problem was the lead was 10 points and not 20. For the second consecutive game without Welker, the Broncos struggled to convert on third down. For one of the few times this year, their offense also struggled in the red zone, failing twice to convert touchdowns.
There also was a fourth-and-3 from the Houston 28 when Broncos coach John Fox went for it instead of having Matt Prater attempt a 46-yard field goal. Manning’s pass to tight end Julius Thomas came up a yard short.
In past games, the Broncos frequently have overcome their first half mistakes by scoring on their first drive in the third quarter. This was a different game. Manning started 0-of-6 with a sack in the second half and his offense began with three consecutive three-and-outs.
The Texans got back in the game when on their first drive of the second half quarterback Matt Schaub put together his best drive in weeks. After Andre Johnson dropped a sure touchdown pass on second down, Schaub scrambled right on third-and-9 from the Broncos’ 15 and dropped a touchdown pass to Keshawn Martin.
The score had closed to 16-13, Broncos.
The game swung early in the fourth quarter, though, when Broncos safety Mike Adams made a terrific interception along the Houston sideline at the Texans’ 28-yard line.
That’s when Manning got in a groove and threw touchdown passes to finish his next three possessions.
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