DENVER -- Nothing changed regarding the Broncos' Super Bowl hopes Thursday night. Barring a catastrophic injury or unforeseeably calamitous on-field play, nothing in this regard was going to change based on a single night's performance -- except to those prone to hyenic overreaction.
But in a 49-27 win over the Baltimore Ravens, plenty changed. Peyton Manning was the same Peyton Manning that NFL followers have come to know -- and unless they are Colts fans until 2011 and Broncos fans now, come to dread -- but his best was better than ever. He and the Broncos offense were more potent, more productive, more efficient. He was everything he's been, every day in practice, every time he flourishes in a game -- but just a little bit more.
"It's incredible," said Head Coach John Fox.
Manning's career is filled with masterworks. But Thursday night might have been his magnum opus.
Before Thursday, Manning had never thrown a regular-season touchdown pass to Julius Thomas before. Or Andre Caldwell. Or Wes Welker. For some quarterbacks, this might not be an issue, but Manning has spoken so often of the years it takes to build proper, precise timing with his receivers that five touchdowns to that trio is a stunning development.
Before Thursday, Manning had never thrown seven touchdown passes in a game. In a career of notable accomplishments, that mark eluded him. And no Broncos quarterback had ever thrown more than five in one game, a record he left in the dust with over 13 minutes still to play.
"Obviously it's a huge achievement," said Welker, "but he was so nonchalant about it -- throwing seven touchdown passes -- so you didn't even really notice it."
No one had thrown seven touchdown passes in an NFL game since Joe Kapp in 1969 -- at least, not in a game outside the digital world.
"It's like Madden to me. It feels like a Madden game," said wide receiver Andre Caldwell, whose 28-yard touchdown catch 2:30 into the third quarter put the Broncos in front to stay. "Just throwing the ball around -- a lot of people making plays -- it just felt like a video game."
"This is the first time I've ever been a part of a game where a quarterback throws seven touchdowns. Not even high school. Maybe Madden, but that doesn't count," said Demaryius Thomas.
"This was real life. It was amazing."
Before Thursday, the Broncos had won just one game in which their quarterback threw for more than 450 yards -- and that is marked with an asterisk, since the opposing quarterback that day -- when Gus Frerotte went 36-of-58 for 462 yards -- was the maligned Ryan Leaf of a 1-15 Chargers team whose record was the worst in AFC West history.
Manning had thrown for at least that many yards once before. But he lost that 2004 game at Kansas City, 45-35, rendering a 472-yard performance moot.
Usually extreme yardage totals like Manning's 462-yard tally are piled up because a team is hopelessly behind and passing on nearly every down to catch up. Since 1980, 39 quarterbacks have thrown for that many yards or more; 20 of them lost. But it worked out Thursday because it was exactly how the Broncos diagrammed it: an offense blessed with targets that Manning trusted, which put the Ravens into pick-your-poison mode.
"It went kind of like we all thought it was going to go. This whole offseason we've been talking about how many different weapons we have," said Julius Thomas. "I think we were able to display that today."
Before Thursday, we didn't know what is the ceiling for Manning and this offense. Even now, we still may not know -- but we have a better idea. The virtual became real, and the Broncos' hopes of the ultimate success are as vibrant as ever.