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Twenty-two minutes into his first football game in more than 20 months, Peyton Manning shifted the NFL's balance of power with one perfect little pass on Sunday. The starting quarterback for the Denver Broncos—it's still hard to believe, isn't it?—had yet to put a point on the board as he faced a first-and-10 on his own 35-yard line. Manning was looking a little tentative against a snorting Steelers defense that was hell-bent on avenging last year's overtime playoff loss to the Broncos. That was the final shocker in Denver's carnival of a 2011 season, during which Manning's predecessor, Tim Tebow—equally hard to believe, in hindsight, no?—played the role of freak show curiosity as much as signal-caller.
The arrival of Manning—at 36, a four-time league MVP and obsessive-compulsive student of the game—immediately changed the culture in Denver, giving the quarterback position an air of competence not seen since John Elway went out on top following his Super Bowl XXXIII win. After four surgeries on his neck, questions remain about Manning's physical prowess, but no one doubts his football intellect.
Back at his 35-yard line, Manning was under center when he recognized the Pittsburgh formation from his marathon film sessions. He knew that after the snap he would be looking to the left flat, where receiver Demaryius Thomas was in one-on-one coverage. Thomas, 24, is a freakish physical talent, but his development was stunted last season when he was used mostly as a decoy or downfield blocker in the rudimentary passing schemes meant to minimize Tebow's myriad weaknesses. (The notable, stunning exception was the 80-yard overtime catch-and-run that knocked Pittsburgh out of the playoffs.) Throughout this summer and preseason Thomas had become a kind of teacher's pet to Manning. "He's made me a smarter receiver and taught me how to run routes the way he wanted them," Thomas said last week. Now he was being crowded at the line of scrimmage by cornerback Ike Taylor. The play call had Thomas on a go route, but 20 yards upfield he broke off the pattern.
"It's his read," Manning said afterward. "First choice is to go over the top, but D.T. read the situation perfectly."
So did Manning. His pass tore through the thin Mile High Stadium air, and even before it reached its apex the sellout crowd loosed a throaty roar. Some of football's most passionate fans, these Denverites have consistently had their hearts broken during the post-Elway administrations of Brian Griese, Jake Plummer, Jay Cutler, Kyle Orton and Tebow. The Manning mania that has since swept the Rockies is quantifiable: Individual ticket prices are up more than $100 on the secondary market over last year, and Manning's orange number 18 jersey is the league's top seller. In the days leading up to Manning's debut, the Broncos had tried futilely to lower expectations. "We won't know he's back from one particular moment," said offensive coordinator Mike McCoy. "It will be a body of work."
Now Manning was putting the lie to this with one spectacular throw. When Thomas turned to the sideline, the ball was already on his back shoulder. "That's Peyton," he said later, laughing. "If you are in the right place at the right time, he will always find you."
The completion was equal parts trust and timing, and its precise execution impressed one discerning onlooker. "There's such a small window on that throw," said Elway, the Broncos' executive vice president who led Manning's recruitment. "It was a perfect ball. If there was any doubt whether Peyton is back, I think he answered it with that throw."
Manning called his connection with Thomas "a big play at a big moment," and it energized the Broncos' offense. Eight plays later Knowshon Moreno's seven-yard scamper gave Denver a 7--3 lead. Manning and Thomas struck again late in the third quarter on a screen pass that went for a 71-yard touchdown. (It was the 400th of Manning's career, accomplished in his 209th game, 19 games ahead of the pace set by Brett Favre, the alltime touchdowns leader with 508.) And Denver took the lead for good after Manning connected with four separate receivers on an 80-yard drive that was capped by a one-yard touchdown pass to Jacob Tamme. For the game Manning went 19 of 26 for 253 yards, two TDs and no interceptions, good for a 129.2 rating.
Asked to assess Manning's play, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin conjured up the gaudiest of superlatives: "He's Peyton."
That's crushing news for the rest of the NFL. The Broncos were already equipped with a stout defense, a high-powered ground game (tops in the NFL in 2011, actually) and a high-altitude home field advantage. If Manning goes back to the future as a preeminent passer, then Denver must be elevated to the short list of Super Bowl favorites. The team understood the larger meaning of Manning's performance. "This was an important opportunity to define ourselves," said cornerback Champ Bailey. "A chance for us to make a statement."