DENVER –When quarterback Peyton Manning found wide receiver Eric Decker in the end zone for an 8-yard touchdown pass that stretched his team's lead to 21-6 in the third quarter, it marked the 72nd game of his career with at least three touchdown passes.
Manning is now tied with Brett Favre for the most career games in NFL history with at least three touchdown passes. That touchdown pass to Decker also marked the 34th of the season for Manning, giving him the second-highest single-season total of his 15-year career. But even as his personal milestones pile up, Manning continues to insist that he has room to improve.
"I know you guys don't believe me when I say I'm still kind of learning about myself physically and what I can do," Manning said. "It's still the truth, and I still have things that are harder than they used to be and things that I continue to have to work on, from a rehab standpoint to a strength standpoint. And that's just the way it is, and maybe that's just the way it's going to be from here on out for me. I don't know. I'm going to keep trying."
Despite nearing career highs in many statistical categories, Manning said he does not consider himself to be the same quarterback he once was.
"I don't," Manning said of whether he thinks he's as good as he was during his prime. "I do not. I'm trying to be as good as I possibly can at this stage. And a 36-year-old quarterback, coming off a year-and-a-half off, playing on a new team, I'm trying to be as good as I possibly can in this scenario."
Coming off a season spent rehabbing from neck surgeries that kept him sidelined throughout 2011, Manning entered his first year in Denver facing questions about his health and durability. Those doubts have been put to rest, especially for linebacker Von Miller.
"He's 36-years old?" Miller asked. "I didn't know he's 36-years old. He doesn't look like he's 36-years- old. He's still throwing the ball everywhere, he's still getting it done. He's still looking like one of the best football players ever to play the game. I don't think the age or the neck injury is really a crutch for him. He's still doing one of the best jobs that I've ever seen. I've only been here for two years, but he's definitely been great."
In Sunday's win over the Browns, which improved the Broncos' record to 12-3, Manning completed 30-of-43 passes for a season-high 339 yards. He led the Denver offense to 29 first downs, 457 total yards and a 33:40-26:20 advantage in time of possession. It was a methodical effort that left Cleveland defensive lineman Frostee Rucker exasperated after the game.
"He sits there and holds the cadence until about seven seconds left on the clock," Rucker said. "I don't know what he's saying, if he's changing the play or they already have one. He just runs his stuff. He's the best at it. We just didn't make enough plays and they did. We played the best quarterback in the league."
While Manning caught yet another defense off guard with his pre-snap adjustments, nothing about his performance surprised veteran wide receiver Brandon Stokley, who played with Manning in Indianapolis from 2003-06.
"I've seen him do a lot of special things," Stokley said. "It'd be hard at this point for anything that he does to surprise me."
Manning's latest 300-yard passing day gives him 4,355 yards on the season. And with a loss by Houston, the Broncos, who have won 10 consecutive games, now have a chance at the No. 1 seed going into the AFC playoffs. None of those things matter as much to Manning, however, as his team's ability to close out the regular season with another step forward.
"I think we've made some strides each week," Manning said. "I still have to admit that it's not going to be (like) an offense that's been together for five years. It's not going to look like that because we haven't. We've only been together for however many weeks, so we've tried to improve each week, but a lot of things just take time. We're trying to do the best we can in this limited amount of time."